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Analysis: Tempting Mary Homer away from Topshop

As she leaves Topshop after 30 years, what is in store for Mary Homer at The White Company?

After three decades at Topshop, including more than 10 as managing director, Mary Homer is leaving to join The White Company as chief executive, replacing Will Kernan. It is a good move for Homer, giving her the opportunity to do something new with a fast-growing company that is on the cusp of international expansion.

For years, Topshop has been the epitome of cool on the high street. However, competition from digital and fast fashion brands, changing consumer priorities and an experience-hungry “generation Z” market are challenging its young fashion top spot. Meanwhile, The White Company has managed to maintain a strong brand identity and point of difference in the face of ever-increasing competition – successfully creating a vision of how many middle-class urbanites would like their lives to look.

The White Company’s opportunities for expansion in the US make it a particularly appealing option for a new CEO. It will open its first US store in New York this summer, and Drapers understands stores in other mall locations in the Tri-State area – New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – will follow. The US is a notoriously challenging market, but The White Company has already tested the water with a US website, which launched in 2014. In December it revealed that its US performance was a main contributor to its record growth in the year to March 2016, when its operating profit soared 51% to £17.3m.

Back at home, it is upsizing some of its stores – including at the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent – and opening in new locations such as Victoria Gate in Leeds. The decision to focus on high-footfall shopping centres should help to increase brand awareness. However, these centres can be demanding beasts that require an element of retail theatre to continue attracting customers.

There are other challenges. The White Company seems to be prone to discounting, which must be eroding its margins. Homer will also have to manage the relationship with The White Company’s founder Chrissie Rucker, who is still involved in the business and, some sources say, can be quite cautious. But after so many years of working closely with Sir Philip Green, Homer is used to operating within boundaries set by someone with a strong idea of how the business should be run.

The White Company is not immune to the usual problems facing high street retailers, including rising costs, faltering consumer confidence and, from today, the official kick-off of the Brexit negotiations. However, if Homer can ensure The White Company’s reputation for quality and differentiated product continues, and crack the US, she should have no difficulty in keeping it on its current growth trajectory.

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