It’s a fair bet that anyone running a sweepstake on the identity of the new House of Fraser boss will be rolling the jackpot over onto the next big appointment.
Few could have predicted that Alex Williamson would be the man to succeed Nigel Oddy, not least because he has practically no profile within the retail sector.
Williamson will join House of Fraser on July 31 from the Goodwood Group, which runs the famous West Sussex estate and hosts events including the Festival of Speed and Goodwood Revival.
He has been incredibly successful in his role, doubling revenue in the space of eight years and turning a loss-making enterprise into a profitable one.
Challenge of instability
But with sales pushing £1bn, House of Fraser represents a challenge on an entirely different scale, and that’s before you factor in the recent problems.
Instability has led to a series of senior departures in 2016 culminating in the resignation of Oddy himself.
“It’s true that Williamson’s appointment represents a major risk at a time when the market is volatile”
Williamson’s background is primarily in the leisure and hospitality industry – he has previously held senior roles with travel giant Tui and also has experience in the music and publishing sectors, but conspicuously none in retail.
For traditionalists this will set alarm bells ringing, and it’s true that Williamson’s appointment represents a major risk at a time when the market is volatile and House of Fraser has only recently begun to show signs of financial improvement.
A fresh pair of eyes
Others may point to cases where chief executives with a non-retail background are doing great things.
Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis is a prime example of how a fresh pair of eyes can revitalise a business and set it on a new, more successful path.
“Could House of Fraser feel they … want a visionary leader who can get on with the job of building a customer experience led proposition?”
But Lewis was already steeped in grocery industry experience when he joined Tesco; it just happened to have been acquired on the supplier side of the fence.
A better comparison with Williamson may be Sergio Bucher at Debenhams.
He was appointed not because of his experience of the UK retail scene but because of his wealth of ecommerce and international expertise, which happened to align with Debenhams’ own ambitions.
A visionary leader
Williamson too appears to have been judged more on his skillset than his subject matter knowledge.
House of Fraser has made no secret of its desire to transform the quality of its customer experience and who better to lead this transformation than someone with a proven track record of delivering premium lifestyle experiences to well-heeled consumers?
House of Fraser executive chairman Frank Slevin seemed to confirm as much when he said that: “Over the last two years, we have built a very strong management team, with particular expertise across the key disciplines in retail.”
Reading between the lines, could it be that House of Fraser feel they have the nuts and bolts covered and want a visionary leader who can get on with the job of building a customer experience led proposition?
Back in December, at the time of Oddy’s departure, I wrote in this column that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an unfamiliar name brought in as his replacement, in the vein of Bucher.
Williamson, I must confess, was not on my list, but he fits the bill of an outsider who might just bring with him the fresh perspective needed to make House of Fraser fit for the future.