Footwear insiders have blamed poor trading at Clarks for the surprise exit of chief executive Melissa Potter and chief financial officer Robin Beacham last week.
Potter left after 27 years with the family-owned retailer, while Beacham had worked there for nine. Thomas O’Neill will lead the business as executive chairman until a replacement for Potter is appointed. Group financial controller Mike Coley has been made interim CFO.
Footwear observers told Drapers Potter’s sudden departure was most likely prompted by sluggish sales in the UK and US.
“I must say I’m surprised,” said the boss of one high street footwear chain. “To exit your CEO and CFO so precipitously is odd and must indicate that trade is not great, and the board feels the leadership is not taking the company in the direction they want.”
He added: “Certainly, as we know, there have been big changes in retail and maybe a fresh team is needed to embrace this change.”
Clarks insisted it was a decision by the board, not the family, but one stockist said: “The Clarks family are unhappy with the performance. Clarks spends a disproportionate amount of time in Sale in its own stores and online.”
Another stockist agreed. “Clarks’ own retail has been tough in the UK. It is permanently discounting in its own stores. The US market has also been difficult for the business.
“On the wholesale side of things kids’ footwear was good last season and men’s was OK, but women’s was challenging as Clarks didn’t have it right design-wise for spring.”
The chief executive of one UK footwear business said it had been “a tough year” for retail and shoes in particular, but added that this “wasn’t a good reason to change a very experienced duo”.
Another footwear insider added: “It is a reflection of the pressure CEOs and businesses are under these days to bring about quick changes and results.”
Potter joined Clarks as a graduate trainee in 1988 and became CEO in 2010. A search for her replacement has begun.
Clarks did not give a specific reason for the departures, although it explained that it was experiencing “a highly demanding commercial and economic environment, with increasing competition and intensified customer expectations”.
It added: “The board believes new leadership will help us to meet and overcome the challenges ahead and has begun the search for new leadership that is well equipped to see Clarks through this next phase of growth and to fulfil its potential as a truly global leader in the footwear market.”
Annual sales at the 190-year-old retailer, which has more than 1,000 stores worldwide, fell 3.2% to £1.5bn in the last year, while pre-tax profits rose 1.4% to £121.5m.