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Clarks widens its search to replace Bolliger in top job

Melissa Potter, international managing director at the UK’s biggest footwear company Clarks, has been tipped as a strong contender to take over from chief executive Peter Bolliger when he retires next year.

According to industry observers and sources close to the company, Potter, who has worked at Clarks since 1988, would be a good fit for the firm, which has a notoriously fractious board. But it is by no means a one-horse race.

However, Clarks is believed to have hired executive recruitment firm Egon Zehnder International to look outside the business as well as at potential internal candidates.

The job is one of the biggest footwear roles in the world – Clarks recorded sales of £1.12bn and pre-tax profits of £86.8m in the year to January 2009, an increase of 46% since Bolliger’s appointment as chief executive in 2002.

The brand dominates the UK footwear market in the same way that Marks & Spencer dominates clothing – research firm Verdict estimated it had a 9.8% share of the UK footwear market in 2008.

“Bolliger’s shoes are big shoes to fill,” said one long-term Clarks shareholder. “He really has had a tremendous reign at the business. The new boss will have to have the right personality to fit in as it’s a complex company. But Potter certainly is a rising star at Clarks.”

Potter joined Clarks as a graduate trainee in 1988. She was appointed managing director of the UK division in 2002 and has been tipped for the lead role since joining the Clarks board as managing director of international in 2006.

Although Potter has both international and domestic experience and a long-term handle on the Clarks business, the search is still expected to stretch into overseas markets, global retailers and brands.

Kurt Geiger chief executive Neil Clifford, Hush Puppies UK boss David Rist and Michael Lemner, former New Look managing director for franchise, developing markets and Mim, New Look’s French value chain, have all been cited by headhunters as potential candidates. Others said Clarks may examine the talent pool within global brands such as Nike or Timberland.

Other internal candidates could include Clarks chief executive of North America Bob Infantino.

Sources said the ability to work with Clarks chairman Peter Davies, who has worked hard to smooth relations between shareholders and the board since his appointment in 2005, would be crucial to any candidate’s success.

Another source added: “Clarks will be looking for somebody with the magic touch, but the company has never been about making drastic moves; rather, sensible and steady stewardship.”

Another source close to the business said: “Footwear experience is desirable but it’s not essential as there is lots in the business anyway.”

Speaking exclusively to Drapers this week, Bolliger said he owed much of his success at Clarks to those working around him. He said: “I have built good people around me so [Clarks] don’t have to fish in the empty pond that is out there. Business today is as much about people as it is about good strategy. Melissa has performed very well.

“The big [Clarks] strategy is to have a global business”, added Bolliger. “But don’t forget that the UK wholesale and retail side of the business is the most profitable part of the group.”

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