After 22 years at Tesco where he built the grocer’s convenience arm, Colin Holmes faces a fresh challenge as chairman of outdoor specialist Go Outdoors.
When Colin Holmes, the man credited with building Tesco’s convenience arm, made his return to retail last week as chairman of outdoor specialist Go Outdoors the news was greeted with some surprise in the retail world.
The shock exit of serial dealmaker John Lovering paved the way for Holmes, whose appointment came as private equity firm 3i acquired a £28m minority stake in the growing outdoor retailer that has ambitions to float. Taking the helm at the 30-store retailer is a far cry from Holmes’ role at retail giant Tesco where he had spent over 22 years before his departure last June.
Few imagined the moment when Holmes would leave Tesco. He held a variety of roles from finance director to fresh food commercial director, and regarded boss Sir Terry Leahy as his mentor.
Holmes says: “Sir Terry Leahy was enormously important in carving my career. He invested in me and offered me a breadth of opportunities. I admire him enormously, he’s inspirational in his retail knowledge.”
Holmes was part of an elite executive team below Leahy, which included Dixons chief executive John Browett and Laura Wade-Gery, who is about to take up the post of executive director of multichannel ecommerce at Marks & Spencer. But it was at the convenience arm of Tesco where Holmes really made his name.
Holmes was tasked with integrating the T&S convenience stores, which Tesco acquired in 2002, into the grocery giant’s portfolio, and growing the overall convenience business. The grocer now has 1,662 including 1,142 Express stores and 520 One Stops.
One analyst says: “He was given the role in his mid-30s. He was clearly earmarked for the top. He did a good job but the gains were there to be had.”
High-flyer Holmes took a break from the grocer when he took an eight-month sabbatical in 2007 to spend more time with his family - apparently he drove a camper van across America - and do some charity work. Not long after his return he moved to fresh foods as commercial director.
All thoughts of Holmes replacing Leahy were laid to rest when it was revealed he would be leaving
Tesco in the same week that Leahy announced he would stand down in 2011, and that Phil Clarke would be taking the reins.
The timing inevitably sparked rumours that Holmes quit when snubbed for the top job, although Holmes insists he resigned months before.
He says: “I wanted a different work/life balance. I wanted to work two to three days a week.”
After more than 20 years at the retailer it is unsurprising that Holmes’ manner of doing business has drawn comparisons with that of Leahy. An analyst says: “He was a Tesco man and did things the Tesco way. He was disciplined, measured and considered. A lot like Leahy.”
Although a relatively small business now, a former colleague of Holmes believes Go Outdoors will give him another shot at the big time and thinks there are parallels between the two retailers. He says: “In a way, Go Outdoors is aiming to be the Tesco of the outdoor world. It’s bigger than its rival and prides itself on value and range. It’s looking to expand massively as well.”
And it helps that Holmes is a lover of all things outdoor. He skis, cycles, hikes and even ran last week’s London Marathon.
Go Outdoors will be hoping Holmes can follow in the footsteps of his mentor and build the outdoor specialist into a clear leader.
Career at Tesco
2008 to 2010 Fresh food commercial director
2003 to 2008 Chief executive, convenience
Previous roles Operations director for superstores central and UK finance director