Associated British Foods (ABF) boss George Weston talks to Retail Week about why now is the right time to implement a new strategic advisory board for Primark and how it will help drive the fashion giant’s next phase of growth

George Weston, Associated British Foods boss

George Weston says the advisory board will accelerate Primark’s expansion

As Primark owner ABF welcomes a new finance boss, outgoing finance director John Bason is to head up a new strategic advisory board at the fashion retailer.

Bason, who has been with the business for 23 years, is retiring in early 2023 and will be replaced by former Marks & Spencer executive Eoin Tonge. However, rather than stepping away from the business entirely, Bason will instead be taking on a new role with Primark.

ABF chief executive George Weston told Retail Week he was “thrilled” that the business won’t be losing Bason entirely, saying that he will “be taking his wisdom and knowledge of Primark directly to Primark”.

Weston says the purpose of the strategic advisory board will be to guide Primark and accelerate its expansion into new regions and channels moving forwards.

“The thinking behind the advisory board is that Primark has lots of opportunities in areas which are quite new,” Weston said.

“For example, digital, North America and the technology behind clothes recycling. We want to put in place resources for Paul [Marchant, Primark chief executive] and his team that can really help them out in understanding those areas. 

“There will be other areas in time where we also think it would be great to have someone with real in-depth knowledge that doesn’t really exist either in Primark or indeed in ABF, so its purpose is to be a resource for the executives in Primark.”

Primark’s ABF future is secure

The announcement has sparked some speculation that ABF, a sprawling listed business that includes grocery and food manufacturing arms, might be eyeing a future spin-off or even sale of Primark. However, Weston was keen to emphasise Primark’s long-term importance for the business.

John Bason

John Bason will head up a new strategic advisory board at Primark

“I think the relationship between Primark and everyone else at ABF is a very positive one,” Weston said.

“We do look at it [spinning off the business] from time to time, but I think the governance, the access to the specific capabilities that exist in ABF and the ability for Paul and his team to concentrate on the retailing part of their job, rather than having to worry too much about investor relations – all that I think has real value still.”

When asked why now was the right time for Primark to create a new strategic steering group, Weston said it would have happened much sooner if it had not been for the pandemic. 

“And with John retiring from the role of CFO, his ability to chair this group and then also play a wider role in Primark was an opportunity too good to miss,” he added.

“The other part of John’s role will be to get closer to Paul than either he or I have been able to over the years to support him as the business grows, both in scale and also in complexity”

George Weston, ABF 

Weston conceives the make-up of the board as a rolling group of advisers offering Primark the specific expertise it needs at any one time. 

While he would not be drawn on any specific candidates who would be appointed alongside Bason, he specified that he would definitely be looking for an individual with knowledge of the US market in order to fuel Primark’s expansion plans in the region.

He said that the board would likely be comprised of “three or four” members at any one time, adding: “We’ll play that by ear, really.” 

“I think the other part of John’s role will be to get closer to Paul than either he or I have been able to over the years to support him as the business grows, both in scale and also in complexity,” Weston added.

City backs board

City analysts have welcomed the changes at Primark. 

Barclays identified four key areas where Bason will “add value” to Primark: its expansion plans for the US; rolling out its click-and-collect service; the evolution of its product offer and sustainability credentials; and extending sourcing markets in China and Myanmar.

“John’s experience and insight will continue to be a valuable asset for Paul Marchant and his team,” noted Barclays analyst Warren Ackerman.

Given Primark’s ambitions to increase its store footprint by 30% by 2026 and to have 100% of its clothes made with recycled and sustainable materials by 2030, Shore Capital analyst Clive Black says Bason and any future board members will be critical to tackling these tasks. 

“There’s a lot going on at Primark and I think it is probably a good thing that they have someone like John, that they have a strategy advisory group being set up that inputs to Paul and the senior team at Primark – that can only be a good thing,” Black said.

“If it helps strategic thinking at Primark, if it leads to Primark being more agile, more switched-on in terms of customer market developments, more effective in terms of its operations and where it decides to apply its capital, then that can only be good for ABF shareholders and Primark shoppers.”

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