News that Bonmarché will replace outgoing chief executive Beth Butterwick with Asda’s Helen Connolly surprised the industry.
Connolly, at present buying director for womenswear and lingerie at Asda’s George clothing brand, might seem a leftfield choice: she is a relative newcomer and, while she has great fashion experience, she lacks board-level seniority until now.
Verdict retail analyst Maureen Hinton believes that is no bad thing, however. She observes: “It is a surprise that she is not coming from the usual set – somebody like Kate Bostock, those sort of names that get bandied around – but it’s good that new blood is being brought in at that level. It’s needed.”
Although Connolly may not have been on a main board, George far outstrips Bonmarché in scale. George’s revenues are around 10 times that of the womenswear retailer.
Connolly has spent 11 years at George in total: from 2008 onwards and a shorter spell as buying manager from 2003 to 2006.
Between the two periods she was head of buying at Dorothy Perkins for two years and started her career as a buyer for Next in 1995, spending eight years at the high-street giant.
Calling the shots
She should be able to bring in new suppliers, which is always going to be a challenge. From that point of view it is a good choice but there is also a challenge of bringing in a slightly younger shopper
Maureen Hinton, Verdict
“She’s been leading a big team and so she is moving somewhere smaller, in fact she probably has a bigger team at George,” says Retail Remedy’s Paul Thomas. “She may have felt a little like a cog in a wheel at Asda and now she can call the shots. Some people will love that, some would miss the security and the safety networks. We’ll find out what camp she falls into.”
“They are taking a brave decision, but a good decision, and the market seems to have reacted well.”
Connolly’s buying background will stand her in good stead when it comes to product.
“She will bring good experience on sourcing side which could help with margins,” says Hinton. “She should be able to bring in new suppliers, which is always going to be a challenge. From that point of view it is a good choice but there is also a challenge of bringing in a slightly younger shopper.
“The younger shopper may only be 20 years younger than Bonmarché’s core customer but there are two different generations – they have very different attitudes.”
This strategic issue is one of two main challenges for Connolly. Bonmarché grew steadily under Butterwick off the back of a successful IPO at the end of 2013 but issued a profit warning last December.
Under Butterwick, Bonmarché continued to target an older customer, but aimed to appeal in new ways such as fashionability and multichannel options.
Bonmarché also faces competition from rivals such as N Brown, which is steaming ahead with its digital-first strategy.
“The concern is that Bonmarché is coming under pressure to cater for a new generation of women,” says Thomas. “If they proceed with that strategy then Helen would be great at doing that. George has a younger, more trend-conscious customer base than Bonmarché.”
Her other key challenge is getting to grips with the operational side of the business.
“We think she would have had some great leadership coaching at Asda,” says Thomas. “They are very good at that as a business. But her operational expertise is untested – the final mile and customer journey.
“She may need support with that as her experience is purely around buying. But she will learn that at Bonmarché.”
Connolly will need to learn quickly, but looks as if she could bring a fresh approach to Bonmarché.