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Debenhams' new CEO a 'risky' choice

Debenhams’ appointment of chief restructuring officer Stefaan Vansteenkiste as CEO is a “risky” decision, as he lacks fashion retail and product experience, industry insiders have told Drapers.

Vansteenkiste, who is managing director at professional services firm Alvarez & Marsal, joined Debenhams in April after Sergio Bucher stepped down as chief executive.

Since he joined Alvarez & Marsal in 2003 he has been involved in a range of turnarounds, and has held CEO and director roles at companies including Intertoys, Vion Food Group, Diam International and Bally Shoes. 

Industry insiders have questioned how suited he is to the department store business, and whether he will be able to rescue Debenhams.

“Debenhams hiring [Vansteenkiste], another guy with no retail or fashion experience, is rubbish,” said Mary Anderson-Ford, managing director at recruitment consultancy Aquaretail.

“When are retailers going to learn that appointing people with a non-retail background isn’t going to work?” she questioned.

Retail analyst Richard Hyman agreed: “I’m very pessimistic about the outlook for Debenhams. They tried to hire an experienced retailer, but it proved extremely difficult to persuade someone with any retail gravitas to enter the business because it’s failing.

“[Vansteenkiste’s] first priority as CEO must be to stop the haemorrhaging of sales revenue. Employing someone whose specialism is cutting costs is fine, but sales will continue to decline and you can only cut costs so far.”

However, another retail headhunter said that although Vansteenkiste’s appointment was a “risky decision”, he could prove useful to the business in the short term, given his track record in restructuring: “Debenhams needs a very old-school, very real turnaround. They don’t need a retail guru to do that. They need someone who will be able to renegotiate with suppliers and landlords, and turn the business around.”

He added: “If this is a 12-month appointment, then I think [Vansteenkiste] as CEO will be fine.”

The director at one recruitment agency said Debenhams needs a fresh pair of eyes and argued that Vansteenkiste’s strategic experience will “prove more valuable” than a background in fashion retail: “I personally can’t see that his lack of retail experience will be detrimental to whether he can, or will, succeed in turning Debenhams around.

“He needs to focus on getting Debenhams’ product offering back on track by updating its existing brands and bringing in new, fresher ones. If he wants to get customers through the door, then he needs to adapt to consumer demand and changing trends.”

Debenhams declined to comment on the appointment, but a source close to the situation said: “Stefaan is a restructuring expert and he joined Debenhams in April, so he knows the business and what it is going through. He is also very well supported by the Debenhams team, which boasts lots of retail experts such as Steven Cook (MD of fashion and home), so he is in a good place. Although he might not be a familiar name in fashion/retail, he has been a CEO advisor for lots of companies, such as Intertoys and Bally Shoes, so brings lots of relevant experience.”

Debenhams chairman Terry Duddy said: “We concluded that [Vansteenkiste] is the right person to take the business forward into the next phase of its recovery. Stefaan has already made a strong contribution since joining Debenhams, and has the support of our investor consortium to drive forward our turnaround plan.”


Readers' comments (3)

  • darren hoggett

    When people with little or no experience get appointed, it is often that they then have to carry the can when things go wrong.

    While Vansteenkiste may well seem an odd choice, but the last thing needed was a 'Debenhams' type of person, so while Stefaan may be on a hiding for nothing he may equally have nothing to lose.

    Simply Debenhams needs to significantly shrink and restructure its portfolio as fast as possible, forgot about the obsession with market share and be a smaller, but better and desirable retailer.

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  • Wasn't it experienced retailers who got the company in a mess! Maybe a different approach will offer long term prospects rather than the constant discounting and devaluing of the big high street dinosaurs

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  • Absolutely agree with the other comments, we all know Debs needs restructuring its a much greater issue than driving sales up 3 or 4%. Having retail fashion experience is great but if there is no cash, how can they discuss developing the business? I believe the business needs a leader to restructuring and ensure sound financial basis, plus a merchant to look after the product side. Good luck.

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