Debenhams caught the City off guard this morning with the surprise appointment of Sergio Bucher as its new chief executive.

By the department store chairman Ian Cheshire’s own admission, Bucher is “not well known to the UK retail community” – but that doesn’t stop the former Kingfisher boss describing the dual-nationality European as “a real find for Debenhams”.

It takes merely a cursory glance at the half-Spanish, half-Swiss retailer’s CV to establish how Cheshire comes to that conclusion.

Bucher has served as the boss of Amazon’s European fashion business since April 2013, spearheading growth in the etailer’s footwear, clothing, jewellery, watches and luggage divisions.

He previously held two high-profile roles during four years at sports brand Puma, serving as general manager for global retail and then general manager for Europe – positions that came off the back of five years at rival Nike.

Prior to that, between 2000 and 2003, Bucher was instrumental in Zara-owner Inditex’s launch of lingerie fascia Oysho.

Brand building

Such strength in building brands was among the qualities that caught Cheshire’s eye during what he describes as a “robust” process to recruit departing boss Michael Sharp’s successor.

“Obviously his most recent role in developing Amazon’s fashion business is particularly relevant for us as we develop the next stage of our omnichannel business,” Cheshire says.

“But there’s also his experience around Nike, Puma and Inditex, so he’s very strong on brand and brand development, which is a key part of Debenhams’ future in terms of own label.”

Verdict analyst Honor Westnedge believes Bucher’s plans for Debenhams private-label proposition will form a key part of his strategy.

“Debenhams has historically been very keen on increasing the mix of own brand, but has struggled and brought in more third-party brands in recent years,” she explains.

“It will be interesting to see whether Sergio will bring new designers on board and rejig the own-brand offer with fresh eyes, or continue Sharp’s steps to bring in third-party brands.”

Collaborative leader

But his brand-building abilities are not the only characteristics that landed Bucher the top job.

Fran Minogue, managing director of headhunter Clarity, describes him as “one of the up and coming CEOs of the future”.

“He has done an amazing job at Amazon and is extremely well thought of there. I’d imagine they’d have fought very hard to keep him,” Minogue adds.

“People want to work hard for him because he is well-respected and well-liked”

Fran Minogue, Clarity

“He’s a very collaborative and inclusive leader, who really does work with the team while very clearly being the leader.

“People want to work hard for him because he is well-respected and well-liked.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Cheshire, who was struck by Bucher’s leadership capabilities during the interview phase.

“He is, I think, a very compelling, open, low-ego and collaborative leader, who is very demanding on his people, but very positively viewed by people who have worked with him,” he says.

“I think he will engage a people business of 25,000 staff to help them set a new direction, get them energised and get them thinking about the next five to 10 years.”

Redefining Debenhams

That future vision was uppermost in Cheshire’s thinking when he opted to take what he calls “a measured judgement call” by looking externally for Sharp’s successor, rather than plumping for “outstanding internal candidate” Suzanne Harlow, Debenhams’s group trading director.

Cheshire says the retailer needs “the next generation of vision and leadership” that its new boss promises, as it seeks to redefine its core customer, refocus its proposition and rediscover “the distinctive thing Debenhams will do that others can’t.”

“Debenhams hasn’t kept up with pace of change and will have to really review the portfolio to make it more profitable”

Honor Westnedge, Verdict

“We will start with the customer,” Cheshire declares. “We have to agree who our core customer is and make sure the business understands that. Then we start working on what we do for that customer – what is our proposition?

“In particular, it’s about understanding the role of a modern, multichannel department store and how it can fulfil the needs of its customer in a way that other players can’t.”

Understanding the role and structure of a department store business is something Bucher will have to get to grips with on a personal level, too – and fast.

Westnedge observes: “Debenhams is in a difficult position because they have so many stores and many are very dated.

“They haven’t kept up with pace of change and will have to really review the portfolio to make it more profitable.

“This is a really exciting place where you can make your name as a leader and I think that’s what Sergio saw with us”

Ian Cheshire, Debenhams

“For someone with Sergio’s experience and recent positions, that will be the biggest step-change for him in terms of how he returns that business to solid growth.”

Despite the challenges facing Bucher when it comes to working in a new sector of the retail industry, Cheshire jokes that he “didn’t have to beg” him to swap Amazon for Debenhams, but admits he was “very pleasantly surprised” that he opted to jump ship.

He maintains: “This is a really exciting place where you can make your name as a leader and I think that’s what Sergio saw with us.”

The wider retail community may not be aware of Bucher’s talents yet, but if he can lead a rejuvenation of the Debenhams business, he could quickly become a name on everyone’s lips.