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Editors Comment: Change at the top of some of retail's biggest names

Keely Stocker

Less than three months into the year, and there have already been several high-profile departures from top-level roles in the industry.

Fiona Lambert stepped down as vice-president of own-label development at Asda in January; Beth Butterwick is leaving Bonmarché and will be joining Karen Millen later in the spring; and Hugo Boss chief executive Claus-Dietrich Lahrs resigned from his role in late February, two days after the business issued a profit warning. Michael Sharp is also set to leave Debenhams, and Drapers understands an announcement on his replacement is expected in the next couple of weeks.

This week two more industry leaders announced their resignations. The managing director of Fenwick’s Bond Street flagship, David Walker-Smith, is to depart after three years at the helm, during which time he has repositioned and modernised the store.

In a Drapers Interview back in 2014, Walker-Smith was honest about the challenges he had to overcome to make this happen – including the backlash he faced when he tried to introduce music to the store (it did not go down well). Despite the trials and tribulations, he is credited with responding quickly to customer reactions and building a strong fashion team.

Over in Knightsbridge, another industry stalwart preparing his exit this week was Harrods managing director Michael Ward. Having joined the luxury department store in 2005, Ward has had a busy 11 years leading it through challenging and changing times.

Many say he is a charming man and speak highly of his support to others in the industry. I can concur, having met Ward a few months back when he spoke at one of our Drapers Inner Circle events. His speech demonstrated his in-depth knowledge of his luxury customer and was peppered with some amusing anecdotes about the sheer scale of purchases made at Harrods.

One of the things Ward will be recognised for at his time at Harrods is his focus on driving its growth strategy. The business has successfully increased its penetration with Chinese and Middle Eastern shoppers, and built trust with suppliers, enabling it to forge strong relationships in the notoriously challenging high-end luxury market. Often seen as the guy behind the scenes – former chief merchant Marigay McKee had a much higher profile in the public eye during her reign – Ward ensured all efforts were put into making this strategy happen. We will be watching for his next move, although it is thought that, after more than a decade in his current role, he may decide to take some time out of retailing.

With so many leadership roles in the industry now open, it will be interesting to see who ends up where and what they bring to their new businesses. We are in a time of such rapid change, the leader of any business must be dynamic and forward-thinking – but most importantly, they need get to the heart of what makes that business unique and use this to build a passionate and loyal customer base.

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