River Island has gone outside of the family to appoint its new chief executive. The high street fashion retailer has announced that former WiggleCRC and The White Company boss Will Kernan will replace Ben Lewis when Lewis steps down later this year.
It’s an interesting move by River Island which remains a family-owned business via the Lewis Trust Group and retains a strong family influence in the boardroom.
Ben Lewis, nephew of founder Bernard Lewis, has spent the past nine years at the helm and has been a huge presence within the business for far longer than that.
Following Kernan’s appointment, Ben will move into a non-executive role while Bernard’s son, Clive, remains the retailer’s chairman.
Taking over the running of a family business will present challenges for Kernan as he adapts to the River Island culture, but it will also offer opportunities. River Island’s private status can allow for fast decision making; and indeed the business is well known for responding quickly to changes in the market. It can also set its own investment agenda, unlike publicly owned competitors who face the constraints of satisfying their shareholders.
Also in his favour is Kernan’s previous experience of working with an influential founder in the form of The White Company’s Chrissie Rucker.
Most importantly, Kernan will bring a strong track record of growth and leadership of retail businesses when he joins in September.
After graduating with a degree in economics from the University of Exeter, Kernan went straight into retail with Burton where he describes he role as finance “dogsbody”. He progressed through financial controller roles at Arcadia and British Shoe retailing before joining New Look as group finance director in 1999, working his way up through the positions of trading director and managing director before being named chief operating officer in 2010.
Kernan left New Look to become chief executive of The White Company in 2012 where he increased group sales each year of a five-year tenure.
In 2017, Kernan was recruited to run cycling etailer Wiggle following its merger with Chain Reaction Cycles. No doubt the strong international focus of the WiggleCRC business during his two-year tenure – which included the acquisition of the German cycling etailer Bike24 – will have proved attractive to the Lewis family as River Island looks to grow its own international presence by opening company-owned flagships and dedicated websites.
A qualified chartered accountant, Kernan lists product development, ecommerce, strategic planning and retail property among his skills. If he can successfully adapt to the River Island ‘way’, there’s every chance Kernan will add further strength to what is already an impressive CV.