I must confess to being surprised at Robbie Feather’s appointment as Fenwick chief executive. Not
because Feather is an unsuitable candidate – quite the opposite in fact – but because he has been
touted for a chief executive role with much bigger businesses, including Halfords, and as a long-term
successor to Mike Coupe at Sainsbury’s.
It’s easy to see why Feather was an attractive candidate to Fenwick. He has experience of the
department store sector at John Lewis and boasts digital expertise from his role as online director at
Sainsbury’s. This will be of particular value to Fenwick as it plans to finally launch a transactional
website in 2019 after a number of false starts.
Feather’s entrepreneurial streak (he is co-founder of Feather & Black) also gave him an edge over
other candidates and should help him adapt quickly to a very different kind of organisational culture
based on the values of the founding Fenwick family.
I’ve written a number of times about the challenges involved in an outsider going in to run a family
business. Certainly, the dynamic at Fenwick will be very different to a giant PLC like Sainsbury’s,
however there is one factor that reassures me that this won’t be a problem in Feather’s case.
Richard Pennycook became chairman of Fenwick in May and if anyone knows how to get the
governance of an organisation right it’s the former Morrisons and Co-op man. I would expect
Pennycook to act as the bridge between Feather and the Fenwick family and do so extremely
The appointment of Pennycook as chairman marked the point at which the family decided to take
more of a backseat at Fenwick and the hiring of a number of executives from outside the business in
key positions of late suggests they are prepared to let others lead the department store on the next
stage of its journey.
In digital, in particular, the arrival of Kate Smyth, who joined from Dune as multichannel director in
May, and Dixons Carphone’s David Cutts, who became the retailer’s first ever chief information
officer in September, implies a recognition that Fenwick did not have the skills in-house to execute its online plans.
Feather is described as having an inclusive management style, which is likely to be a good fit for a
business looking to fuse the old with the new.
His departure also represents a loss for Sainsbury’s Argos and may just push the highly rated Paul
Mills-Hicks further up the pecking order of future Sainsbury’s leaders. However, if Feather impresses
in his first chief executive role, as I expect he will, don’t rule out a return to fill Coupe’s shoes at
some point in the future.