Woolworths chief executive Trevor Bish-Jones’ shock decision to stand down has prompted fevered speculation about who might succeed him in one of retail’s most challenging roles.

Bish-Jones, who took the reins at Woolworths in 2002, has won praise for his efforts to revive the famous retailer. However, although many of his initiatives have borne fruit, securing the long-term health of the core stores division has proved elusive.

Chairman Richard North paid tribute to Bish-Jones and said: “He has been a tireless chief executive and has made a very significant contribution.” But he added that the board and Bish-Jones had agreed it is “an appropriate time to seek new leadership for the business”.

Two likely internal candidates to succeed Bish-Jones, according to headhunters and analysts, are executive directors Tony Page and Steve Lewis.

Page joined the variety store group in 2006 from Asda. Prior to assuming his present role, Lewis was managing director of retail and distribution at Woolworths and has been on the group’s board since 2005.

Woolworths chairman Richard North confirmed: “We’ve got some strong people internally.”

Potential external candidates, industry watchers speculated, may include Mike Hancox, who resigned two weeks ago as chief executive of multichannel retailer Otto UK.

One source said that the role requires someone of a similar calibre to Mothercare chief executive Ben Gordon, who has won praise for his turnaround of the maternity specialist.

It is not known if Bish-Jones had a role to go to and some speculated he could be in the frame for the chief executive vacancy at Halfords.

Bish-Jones’ resignation raised questions about the future of Woolies and prompted talk that the group could be broken up.

Woolworths revealed on Wednesday that total group sales were down 1.9 per cent in the 19 weeks to June 14. Like-for-likes at the retail arm fell 2.2 per cent.

The retailer also disclosed it had sold four of its London stores, including the Edgware Road flagship, to John Lewis Partnership-owned grocer Waitrose for£25.5 million.