She may have a formidable reputation, but there’s no doubting Kate Swann’s success in reshaping WHSmith

Some would say single-minded, shrewd and no-nonsense, others would say terse. For most though, WHSmith chief executive Kate Swann is something of a paradox. For a person who makes a living out of selling newspapers and magazines, she cares little for appearing in such publications.

This disinterest in marketing herself is all the more surprising when you consider her retailing past. Swann is a marketer by trade and was the first marketing director DIY chain Homebase ever appointed.

Such apathy is not solely reserved for the press. One City analyst said WHSmith presentations are delivered in a “take it or leave it” manner. He says: “She doesn’t deliver them with any razzmatazz; she’s casual and laid back.”

But despite such apparent aloofness the City seems to love Swann.

Pali International analyst Nick Bubb says WHSmith’s rejuvenation has had “a huge amount to do with her”. He believes she has “single-
mindedly driven the strategy along”.

A tough operator

Such focus has won her admiration. Fat Face chairman Alan Giles, a former WHSmith executive before Swann’s time and a former chief executive of rival HMV Group until 2006, says: “She’s focused and won’t allow anything to deter her from her principal focus of creating value for shareholders to the point of being seen to be rude.”

It takes a tough operator to turn around the fortunes of a beleaguered retailer. And 44-year-old Swann has proved she is just that.

“I think she’s demanding but she gets results and can motivate people,” says Bubb. “People don’t leave, they are all very loyal.” Bubb describes the elusive Swann as being the “Arthur Ryan of bookselling” – if her board didn’t persuade her to talk to the press, she wouldn’t bother. And she demands the same of her colleagues.

One senior staff member at WHSmith who spoke to Retail Week half jokes he’ll get fired if he speaks to the press about what kind of boss she is, but says that she is “quite exceptional”.

Swann does not shy away from tough decisions either. In 2004 she slashed 25 per cent of her workforce – some 270 jobs – at head office. And she has also angered unions by securing a maximum bonus payout of £2.45m for herself after closing the retailer’s final salary pension scheme in 2007.

Swann reportedly works 12-hour days, starting at 7am, and rather than enjoy the cocktail circuit she prefers to spend time with her children. She has said in the past: “If I’d wanted an easy life, I wouldn’t have been a woman chief executive of a FTSE 250 company.”

Such determination has paid off. When Swann took the job in 2003 WHSmith was seen as a lost cause.

But she has silenced the critics. She split the retailer’s newspaper and magazine distribution division, and grown the travel division – which have become a key weapon in WHSmith’s armoury.

Shifting the focus

Swann has also altered the sales mix to concentrate on higher-margin products, wisely reducing space in entertainment to make way for stationery and books. “WHSmith is the classic under-promise and over-deliver retailer,” says Bubb.

Her talents have not just been noted at WHSmith. After leaving her post as managing director of Homebase the business was sold for £1bn, and as managing director of Argos she oversaw two years of record profits. She was also ranked retail’s most powerful woman in Retail Week’s Power List last year. “She must be near the top of every headhunter’s list whenever a chief executive role at a FTSE 100 company comes up,” says Giles.

Bubb says a likely destination for Swann could be Marks & Spencer, but others believe that role would result in too much public scrutiny. That may well be so, but it would be safe to assume WHSmith will not be her swansong.

Career history

2003-present: group chief executive, WHSmith

2001-03: managing director, Argos

1997-2001: marketing director and latterly managing director, Homebase

1993-97: group marketing director (Currys), Dixons Stores

1991-93: general manager, carbonates marketing, Coca-Cola Schweppes Beverages

1988-91: product group manager, Homepride Foods

1986-88: graduate trainee in health and beauty, Tesco