It says much about the scale of the crisis facing Laura Ashley that, less than two months after joining the business, Katharine Poulter’s accession to the role of chief executive has been fast-tracked.
Poulter only joined the embattled retailer at the start of January as chief operating officer, albeit with a succession plan seemingly in place. By the end of the same month, it was confirmed that the former B&Q and Wilko director would succeed Kwan Cheong Ng as CEO on 1 May.
That all changed this week when the retailer’s chair Andrew Khoo reported falling sales and a deepening of Laura Ashley’s losses in its interim results. As a consequence, Poulter stepped up with immediate effect.
There are many reasons for Laura Ashley’s plight – some of them specific to the business, others affecting the entire sector. It was notable that Khoo chose to focus on the latter during his update to the market with higher costs, Brexit uncertainty and increases in the minimum wage and business rates all cited as contributing factors.
Poulter has been in the industry long enough to know that her job is to address the factors within her control rather than bemoan those that are not. Now under the ownership of the Malaysia-based MUI group, Laura Ashley hasn’t lost its way because of Brexit or government fiscal policy, it has done so because it has failed to give customers what they want on a consistent basis at a time when younger, more dynamic rivals are offering stylish fashion and homewares at keener prices.
Poulter will need to find a way to change that. Following early commercial roles with M&S and Habitat, she joined B&Q in 2009 as director of trading before holding commercial director roles with Dobbies and Hobbycraft. She joined Wilko as commercial director in 2017 and was promoted to managing director a year later.
In her short time with Laura Ashley, Poulter has already spearheaded a strategic review of the business. With her strong trading background, she’ll no doubt have identified areas in which the retailer can immediately improve the execution of its commercial strategy.
Working alongside CFO Sagar Mavani, who stepped up from the role of group financial controller in October, one of Poulter’s priorities will be to review progress in optimising Laura Ashley’s UK store estate, which has fallen in size from over 200 stores in 2014 to around 150 currently.
Elsewhere, one suspects that all options are on the table. Under Ng, the Asian market was a focus for Laura Ashely’s expansion via a digital-first approach. With its British heritage still a key point of difference it seems likely this is a strategy Poulter will continue to pursue.
The retailer’s short-term future was assured this week when it secured a £20m loan with lender Wells Fargo. But this is a mere sticking plaster. Poulter will need to bring all of her commercial experience to bear if she’s going to put Laura Ashley back on a long-term, sustainable footing.