The numbers at B&Q UK couldn’t be described as stellar – comparable store sales were down 0.2 per cent and overall UK profits fell 11.9 per cent – but they were better than the bears feared and accompanied by more signs that changes wrought by Cheshire are bearing fruit.
So far so good, but wider market trends will do Cheshire no favours. A sharp downturn is expected early next year and may well strip the sheen from B&Q’s golden period, potentially affecting the January kitchen sales bonanza and Easter’s changing rooms rush.
Gathering storm clouds mean the decision about who should lead Kingfisher takes on even greater importance and an unscientific straw poll of retailers and analysts reveals divided opinion on who is best for the job.
“Name a better candidate than Cheshire,” argue his supporters. “Kingfisher needs a completely fresh perspective from an outsider,” others maintain.
It’s important that there is a genuine competitive process, but a preferable alternative to Cheshire is not immediately obvious and his record at B&Q lends his case support.
Few in the City make the case that Cheshire’s strategy for B&Q is flawed. Instead, they feel he is doing the right thing and welcome renewed emphasis on product, price, service and stores.
Where might alternative Kingfisher bosses come from? The recent trading records of DIY world leaders Home Depot and Lowes are hardly unblemished and there is no name on everyone’s lips from B&Q’s British rivals. The big grocers, which have made strides into general merchandise, might prove a happier hunting ground for Kingfisher’s search team.
If Cheshire does win the top job at Kingfisher, his strategic strengths would be complemented by a B&Q chief executive with strong trading and operational skills. Scott Wheway, formerly of Tesco and most recently Boots’ retail boss, might make a strong candidate.
It’s likely to be a few months yet before the smoke signalling an appointment rises above Paddington Basin, but the combination of intellect and operational nous of Cheshire and Wheway might be just what is needed at Kingfisher.
Especially if, as widely expected, next year necessitates tough decisions about the balance between margin protection and sales volumes in the event that a downturn bites.
George MacDonald is deputy editor of Retail Week