Clarks is looking for a new chief executive after Mike Shearwood left the business with immediate effect this week over issues of conduct.
It leaves the family-owned shoe retailer looking for its fourth leader in the past three years following the departure of Melissa Potter in September 2015 and the subsequent interim tenure of Thomas O’Neill.
This is an appointment you feel Clarks has to get right. Like many traditional high street retailers, the business has battled falling profits in recent years, a challenge exacerbated by problems with stock management.
Shearwood had previously spoken of his plan to stabilise the business and put it in a position to grow, but his abrupt departure will put a check on any immediate strategic change in direction.
The question now is, who comes next? Retail boasts some outstanding privately owned businesses; but family firms can sometimes be challenging to work for as an outsider, particularly someone from a PLC background.
Given the lack of pressure to deliver regular shareholder returns, they tend to err on the side of risk aversion and some (although by no means all) concern themselves more with protecting a legacy to leave family members than with executing ambitious expansion plans.
Those same family members are likely to have strong views about how the business is run and so any incoming CEO will require strong skills of diplomacy as well as patience and a cool head.
The next incumbent at Clarks is likely to encounter a similar set of challenges.
In my mind the right candidate will have worked for a family business but also experienced a fast-paced corporate environment – Clarks, as much as any other retailer, needs to be agile and responsive to new market trends if it is to prosper.
An outsider should expect some resistance to their appointment at the start, particularly given the circumstances surrounding Shearwood’s departure, but if they can win around investors and long-standing employees they will be expected – or even relied upon – to stay for the long haul.
It’s hard to see how a money-motivated, performance-driven CEO from a PLC background will fit the bill. The Quaker origins of the company mean that ethical values are valued as highly as the short-term pursuit of profit and an incumbent will need to show respect for the heritage of the business.
The Clarks role also represents a unique retail opportunity because of the head office location in Street, Somerset, the town in which the business was founded by the Clark family in 1825. A new chief executive will not win the approval of employees and the family by ‘phoning in’ the job from London or even, I would suggest, commuting to Somerset. They will need to immerse themselves in Somerset life and be an active part of the community, otherwise they will never get a true feel for the values of the business and its local significance.
It’s legitimate to question whether such people exist. I believe they do and that the Clarks name retains sufficient kudos to attract some excellent candidates. But it will require mutual understanding and compromise across the boardroom table if Clarks is to keep building on its legacy.