It’s a difficult time for anyone employed in the retail market and thoughts are with those who have already lost their job or face an anxious wait to see if it still exists as bosses pick through the wreckage caused by Covid-19.

At an executive recruitment level there are signs that, after several largely dormant months, the market is slowly beginning to pick up again. Enquiries are on the increase and confirmed appointments, such as Pippa Wicks at John Lewis and Karen Mackay as Wilko’s new chief financial officer, demonstrate that minds are turning to the task of building leadership teams fit for a post-pandemic future.

It was confirmed this week that Mackay will take up the CFO role in September, succeeding Alex Russo who left to join rival value retailer B&M in March.

Before the pandemic struck, 2020 had been a busy year in the Wilko boardroom as the retailer looks to strategically reposition itself as a product and multichannel-focused business.

Group transformation director Jerome Saint-Marc took on the role of CEO in February, marking the first time someone has held the CEO role at Wilko since Stuart Mitchell stepped down in 2012.

Saint-Marc moved swiftly to appoint former B&Q and M&S executive Chris Ward as retail director and promote commercial implementation director Alison Hands to the position of trading director.

Mackay’s appointment comes somewhat from leftfield given her lack of direct retail experience, but a closer look at her CV reveals clear areas of alignment with Wilko’s culture and strategy.

Most recently, Mackay spent five years as CFO of healthcare firm Optegra, before which she held the same role at Nelsons, the UK’s largest manufacturer of natural healthcare products.

However, it’s her six years as group finance director at Specsavers that is perhaps most relevant to her new role. Like Wilko, Specsavers is an established high street brand, albeit one that operates a joint venture partnership model whereby each store is part-owned and managed by its own directors.

The two businesses are family-owned and it was instructive that Mackay cited Wilko’s ownership structure as a key reason why the role appealed to her. With her experience at Specsavers – and Nelsons which is also family-owned – Mackay clearly feels well-equipped to cut through any internal politics and get things done.

Getting things done has been key to her career success to-date. During her time with Specsavers Mackay radically restructured the finance organisation to support rapid and agile business growth. She led similar large-scale restructuring and integration programmes as European finance director of Nova Chemicals and this experience has to be of benefit to her new employer which is going through its own period of strategic change. 

Former colleagues endorse Mackay’s leadership and professionalism and her understanding of business dynamics beyond the finance function. All of these skills will be called upon as Wilko looks to navigate its way through a trading environment which was challenging before Covid-19 (like-for-like store sales fell 6.1% and online sales slumped 16.6% in 2019/20), but has since become even more so.

August is usually a quiet time for retail appointments as executives take a well-earned break before the build-up to the golden quarter. But 2020 is a year like no other. I expect the wheels of the jobs’ market will continue to turn faster as businesses move into recovery mode.