The appointments of Dalton Philips and Dido Harding reflect the emergence of a new generation of retail leaders. Here, Retail Week identifies 10 more stars tipped for the top

In the past three months, three of the retail rising stars who would have made this list of future leaders have beaten us to it and landed a chief executive role.

Dalton Philips has been named Morrisons’ new chief executive, Dido Harding has landed pole position at Talk Talk, and Anthony Thompson has taken up the reins at Fat Face.

What’s clear is that while in years gone by it might have been Dixons or Kingfisher, today it is the supermarkets - and especially Tesco - which are the incubators of retail leaders.

Our top 10 features three executives currently climbing the corporate ladder at Tesco, as well as Stuart Machin, who has both Asda and Tesco on his CV.

However, being great at your job is no guarantee of a quick route to the top spot in a retailer.

There are two types of high flyers.

As one headhunter puts it: “When people talk about the next generation of chief executives, they often use the term ‘high potential’, which can be confused with ‘high performance’. Research shows that 93% of ‘high potentials’ are also ‘high performers’, but only 29% of ‘high performers’ are true ‘high potentials’.

“This means that looking back at past performance does not guarantee success with the next challenge.

Our research shows clearly that the most powerful predictor of leadership potential is ‘learning agility’. Learning agility is defined as the ability to assimilate rapidly and effectively to new challenges - and it can be both measured and developed.”

Another headhunter says that there are five key factors when identifying future leaders: the ability to learn, such as to pick up external ideas and trends; the ability to analyse and draw implications; then to envision strategy; engage people; and execute well.

By this reckoning, making it into the top jobs is not so much about operational skills, but more about true leadership. Here are our tips for the top.

David Cheesewright

Chief executive and president, Walmart Canada

Story so far: He’s the name that came up most consistently when we hit the phones to find out who in the industry was most likely to make it to the top-spot in a major UK retailer.

David Cheesewright has caught the attention of the industry not only in his present role, but while working for Asda in the UK.

At the moment he is presiding over an expanding Walmart business in Canada, with more than 300 stores and 82,000 staff.

While he was Asda’s chief operating officer he was considered “the retailer on the board” with considerable experience in food. He will have added to this at Walmart Canada, where he has presided over the retailer’s expansion into non-food with its Supercenter format. The organisation plans to add or convert between 35 and 40 stores to the format this year.

Well-known to analysts, Cheesewright really caught the eye of retail watchers while at Asda, where he was given credit for driving the higher operational standards witnessed in stores. He was also given credit for a change in promotional stance, together with an increase in premium and organic food lines.

He has also run logistics at Asda, and his present role is his second stint at Walmart Canada, after a period there as chief operating officer from 2004 to 2005. He is very fond of life in Canada and the only question is what job it would take to tempt him back to the UK.

Stuart Machin

Operations director at Australian grocer Coles

Story so far: Starting as a casual staff member in a supermarket at just 16, Machin - now 39 - rose quickly through the ranks at Sainsbury’safter taking part in the grocer’s graduate recruitment programme.

He was one of the youngest Sainsbury’s store managers at just 26, and continued his ascent, becoming the grocer’s regional managing director for the South.

In the past decade he has branched out with spells at Tesco and Asda. Now at Coles in Australia, he is considered the strongest executive under Ian McLeod supporting the turnaround project. He is personally sponsoring the graduate recruitment programme launched at Coles, and says that the development of strong leaders is crucial to the company’s success.

Machin’s focus at Coles very much echoes what he will have come across at Asda. He says he has been making changes based on customers and staff, rather than focusing on the competition.

However, it is not clear how quickly he might move on. He joined Coles in August 2008 and McLeod says all his British imports are committed to being there for the long-haul and seeing the turnaround through.

Colin Holmes

Fresh food commercial director, Tesco

Story so far: A Tesco lifer who has spent more than 20 years with the business, Tesco fresh food commercial director Colin Holmes has experience across the business.

He has worked across several divisions including finance and its Express format. One commentator says Holmes “really put Express on the map”.
He says: “Holmes is really well thought of at Tesco and has been tipped for the big job. He has been to presentations in the City so they know him and is known to have Leahy’s ear.”

A determined and typically tough Tesco character, Holmes was promoted late last year to Tesco’s executive committee. At the time, the grocer said the appointment demonstrates Tesco’s ability to “spot talent in the business”.

Holmes took an eight month sabbatical in 2007 - not a very tesco thing to do and testament to the company’s belief in him.

Sir Terry Leahy told staff at the time that Holmes would “return to a senior position” at Tesco.

Laura Wade-Gery

Chief executive,

Story so far: The online business of the country’s biggest grocer has so far been a fertile breeding ground for future retail chief executives. So it would be more of a surprise if Laura Wade-Gery wasn’t to make it into a retailer’s top job, following in the footsteps of both Steve Robinson and John Browett.

Wade-Gery says that running the dotcom has been the most challenging and rewarding period of her career so far, and the scope of the business has expanded massively since she took charge, adding general merchandise and fashion to its grocery offer as well as branching out with digital downloads and other services.

Described as “no-nonsense”, this diplomat’s daughter grew up travelling around the world, but has settled into life at Tesco having been there for about 13 years. Wade-Gery decided she wanted to work for the retailer after her positive experience while an external consultant to the company.

Previously touted as a successor to Sir Terry Leahy, she was the grocer’s group strategy director before moving to run the internet business.
As well as being responsible for the bigger picture, she is a stickler for attention to detail, and has said this is crucial for innovation and profitability.

Katie Bickerstaffe

Group director, marketing and people development, DSGi

Story so far: Bickerstaffe, a former managing director of Kwik Save and group retail director and group HR director of Somerfield, took up her role at DSGi in June 2008.

She has also previously worked for PepsiCo, Unilever and Dyson and industry sources say she has an excellent mix of experience encompassing brands, customers and people. They also say she has the ear of DSGi chief executive John Browett.

At the multinational electricals group she has played a vital role in delivering Browett’s renewal and transformation plan. A big emphasis on service has called for new thinking among the retailer’s staff, which has been one of Bickerstaffe’s responsibilities.

One person who knows her says: “She’s a dynamo - a real change agent.”

Another says: “She’s very good - one of Browett’s best hires. She has an FMCG background as well as retail and her roles have been expanded - she has a lot of strings to her bow.”

FMCG experience has traditionally been highly valued in retail. Many of Asda’s top executives came from Mars and former Morrisons chief Marc Bolland came from Heineken.

Later this month DSGi will hold a strategy update for analysts at its Thurrock store, when progress on the improvement drive can again be measured ahead of US giant Best Buy’s first openings in the UK this spring.

More good news from the retailer would be a sign of Bickerstaffe’s success as well as her boss’s.

Simon Smith

Chief operating officer, WHSmith Travel Retail

Story so far: Smith, who was commercial director at Safeway before joining WHSmith’s travel arm in the same role in 2004, is seen as a potential successor to the bookseller and stationer’s incumbent boss, Kate Swann,or eventually to take the top job at another retailer.

He was promoted to his present position at WHSmith in 2006 and has played a key role in driving momentum at the business, which has outshone its stablemate high street division. Over Christmas, travel stores notched up total sales growth of 2%.

A graduate of Leeds Metropolitan University, Smith has been involved in initiatives such as the extension of WHSmith’s travel interests into hospital stores and the acquisition of airport shops from Alpha. The retailer has also begun opening international airport stores in locations including Copenhagen and Shannon.

One observer says: “He’s young, has got plenty of confidence, is a trader by background and very good at what he does. Although he’s tough, he’s also a good leader of people and he’s rated very highly by Kate Swann.”

WHSmith will post interim results next month, providing the next opportunity to gauge the impact of Smith at the retailer’s travel arm.

Suzanne Harlow

Group trading director, Debenhams

Story so far: Suzanne Harlow makes no bones about being fiercely ambitious.

The Debenhams group trading director readily admits to wanting the top job at Debenhams and is heading in the right direction after having been promoted up the ranks over her 16 years at the department store operator.

Harlow’s retail career began as a graduate trainee at Bhs in 1989 where she stayed for five years before joining Debenhams as a womenswear buyer.

Harlow gained experience across kidswear, accessories, beauty and lingerie before she became group trading director at the department store group last year.

Harlow says that her management style is “very honest, very frank, very organised and open” and relishes the diversity that the department store model affords her.

She is responsible for product and brand strategy at the 157-store chain, managing the buying, merchandising and design elements
of the business across all categories.

While steely determined, Harlow also lives by the adage ‘all work and no play…’ and says: “I’ve got a job to do but I do think you have got to enjoy it while you are here.”

Passionate about product and under the tutelage of chief executive Rob Templeman and his deputy Michael Sharp, Harlow is being groomed as a leader of the future.

Claire Peters

Operations director, Tesco Extra

Story so far: Only in her mid-30s, Peters has caught the eye of the industry as a rising star at the top grocer.

Her role at Tesco’s Extra format puts her in charge of a business bigger than some quoted companies. She succeeded the highly regard Trevor Masters, who was promoted last September to head Tesco’s Central and Eastern European operations.

One source says of Peters’ promotion: “It’s a big, big job - especially following someone as experienced as Masters.” Peters, a graduate in economics and sociology from Loughborough University, features in the careers section of Tesco’s website, where she talks about the opportunities she has had to gain a breadth of experience and her hopes for the future.

She is quoted on the site, which predates her latest job move, as saying: “My main aim is to do the best at whatever I’m doing. This should hopefully lead me up the corporate ladder to a director role.”

Hamish Paton

Commercial director, BrightHouse

Paton may not work in one of retailing’s more glamorous outposts, but is carving a real name for himself as chief executive Leo McKee’s right hand man at the fast-growing rent-to-buy retailer.

Just 33 years old, Paton’s responsibilities include marketing, buying and the supply chain and he has played a key role in the three years of double-digit growth achieved by the Vision Capital-backed retailer.

He cut his teeth in the retail sector working for respected consultancy OC&C, specialising in serving retail clients. He left to join ArchieNorman’s turnaround team at energy company Energis, leaving after it was successfully sold to Cable & Wireless.

Paton has a first-class degree from Cambridge and one leading recruiter says that while he’s doing a first-class job at BrightHouse, he is destined for a top job heading a retailer before long.

“His name is coming up more and more right now,” she says.

“He’s got a really interesting mix of experience and while the work he’s doing at BrightHouse isn’t on everyone’s radar at the moment,
he’s definitely a rising star and destined for big things.”

Names in the frame

For this feature we surveyed many of retail’s top headhunters. Others cited as retail leaders of the future were:

  • Lance Batchelor - Tesco Mobile
  • Luke Jensen - Sainsbury’s
  • Brendan Sweeney - Phones 4U
  • Richard Ames - Ladbrokes
  • John Colley - B&Q
  • Richard Hodgson - Waitrose
  • Simon Hathway - Wilkinson
  • Mike Logue - Asda
  • Martin Waters - Limited Brands
  • Darren Blackhurst - Asda
  • Peter Ruis - John Lewis
  • Roger Burnley - Sainsbury’s
  • Richard Lancaster - Morrisons
  • Nick Wilkinson - Currys
  • Paul Geddes - RBS
  • Wendy Becker - Vodafone
  • Rob Collins - Waitrose
  • Catriona Marshall - Pets at Home
  • Andrew Yaxley - Tesco
  • Richard Hodgson - Waitrose