As Jigsaw’s omnichannel director Kate Holt becomes the latest executive to exit the business, industry sources suggest the high street chain needs more retail experience on its board and a permanent CEO. Drapers investigates.
When former Jigsaw CEO Peter Ruis left in March 2018, it heralded an uncertain future for the retailer.
Less than a month after Ruis’s departure, Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross stepped in as an adviser and stakeholder with a £20m cash injection.
He has since shaken up Jigsaw’s board. Despina Don-Wauchope, a former head of finance at property group Land Securities, was appointed as Jigsaw’s finance director in May. Other newcomers include former TalkTalk executive Richard Walker, and Glasses Direct entrepreneur Jamie Murray Wells, who were appointed as non-executive directors. The board has also appointed brand consultants Isabel Spearman and Silvana Rossi.
One former Jigsaw director questioned the new board’s lack of retail experience: “With the investment from David Ross, he is bringing people on board that he believes are right for the company and his vision. They all have a part to play, but not the years of retail expertise that was around the table 12 months ago.
“All the experience in the boardroom has now gone. Peter [Ruis] was a major driving force behind the business and, unfortunately, the vision and future for Jigsaw walked out of the door with him. His departure and the lack of experience in the boardroom has sparked a domino effect of resignations.”
This week Kate Holt, Jigsaw’s omnichannel director, joined the list of outgoing executives and will be leaving the business in September after nine years. Chairman Charles Atterton, who is still a non-executive director, retired in January after more than 20 years at the company and CEO Chris Stephenson left in the same month after six months at the retailer. Claire Wain, chief finance officer, exited for Jack Wills in March and global buying and merchandising director, Shailina Parti, departed in May after five years at the business.
Drapers understands that Ross and Joanna Robinson, former Sports England regional director, are currently advising the company. Jigsaw human resources director Toby Foreman is still acting as interim chief executive after almost seven months, while Joanna Sykes was appointed as creative director last month.
In an email seen by Drapers, Jigsaw said it is “not currently actively searching for a new CEO and not currently appointing an agency to conduct a search”.
Industry observers said the absence of a permanent chief executive, coupled with a non-retailer board, could be damaging the business.
“Not to be actively searching for a CEO, and to not have someone at the helm making bold decisions in such a volatile and disruptive environment is very concerning,” said Richard Lim, CEO of Retail Economics. “If there isn’t any accountability and a CEO accountable for the strategic direction of the company, then Jigsaw is going to be looking at a very worrying future.”
One womenswear CEO agreed: “Who is leading the business strategy without a CEO? Time is moving on and Jigsaw isn’t while it doesn’t have a permanent CEO. This uncertainty will worry their best people – and will surely risk losing more of them.
“The raft of board appointments at the end of May appear to be trusted allies of David Ross, rather than commercial brand people with experience of what to do. It would seem more sensible to bring in experienced retail brand specialists who understand the customer and the brand, and who can analyse the business quickly, spotting opportunities as well as risks.”
Retail analyst Mark Pilkington said: “Jigsaw has gone through several CEO changes, and seems to have a board full of non-industry people, and an ex-banking person as interim CEO. In the current highly challenging retail environment, I would have to say that its future does not look promising.”
In its latest financial report, the parent company of Jigsaw and The Shop at Bluebird, Robinson Webster (Holdings), reported a 2% decline in group turnover to £102m in the year to 29 September. Gross profit margin for the group was 63%, compared with 62.5% in 2017. Its operating loss jumped 1,800% from £500,000 to £9.5m. Underlying adjusted EBITDA fell 85% to £400,000.
However, several sources said Jigsaw still has the “ingredients to be successful”.
“It’s always good to have people from different backgrounds and to bring a new experience and approach to retail from other sectors,” Lim said.
The former Jigsaw director agreed: “The new board could end up working for Jigsaw. David Ross has deep pockets and could invest even more in the business.
“[Jigsaw founder and shareholder] John Robinson is still there to oversee things and the next level down [of management] are a good bunch of people with lots of experience in the sector.
“The current product range had such a good response. The products and collections emerging are also innovative and new, but it depends how the team markets them. We won’t know the outcome of its success until January next year.”
Meanwhile, the CEO of one retail business agreed that Jigsaw is “having a pretty solid season” and hopes that this will continue.
Observers said the retailer needs to re-establish its position in the market as a premium brand in order to weather the tough retail climate.
“The brand now needs a clearer identity, and I wouldn’t be afraid of increasing prices for beautiful fabrics and quality – not forgetting sustainability and getting those accreditations,” one womenswear source said.
“It needs a total revamp in terms of what it is saying to the customer and identifying who that customer is and what she expects.”
One headhunter said: ”Now is the time for Jigsaw to be bold, innovative and embrace digital.”
Jigsaw declined to comment.