Rewind four years and Athron – then John Lewis Partnership’s development director – was being touted as a successor to Andy Street. In the event, Paula Nickolds was handed the top job and Athron ended his 12 year association with the business shortly afterwards to pursue new opportunities.
He has spent most of the intervening period as chief operating at Matchesfashion but the ambitious Athron is known to have had designs on becoming the top dog and Fortnum & Mason looks like it should fit the bill nicely.
Athron’s predecessor, Ewan Venters, is considered by most observers to have done a terrific job of keeping the historic retailer fit for a digital age and – leaving the pandemic aside for one moment – has left the business on a strong footing. Sales and profitability have grown strongly since he took the helm back in 2012 with Venters pursuing a strategy based on international expansion and multichannel growth, with digital a key focus.
At JLP, Athron was tasked with creating an environment where digital innovation could thrive. He founded JLP Ventures, the innovation unit set up to identify and drive new growth opportunities and creative partnerships across the business’s operations. With Fortnum & Mason viewing multichannel development as key to future growth, Athron’s skill set looks well aligned.
He also has experience across many of Fortnum & Mason’s core categories – food, luxury and designer fashion – having held a variety of roles across the Waitrose and John Lewis brands.
Where Athron has no experience, in common with all current retail bosses, is in steering a retailer through a global pandemic on the scale of coronavirus. Although Venters successfully diversified the Fortnum & Mason business, well over 90% of group sales still come from the UK and of these less than half are from online. In other words, the UK store estate is still critical to the retailer’s success.
With central London footfall decimated by lockdown restrictions and quarantine rules severely dampening tourism and travel, Fortnum & Mason’s Piccadilly flagship and satellite stores at St Pancras and Heathrow are highly vulnerable to ongoing disruption.
The business is 300 years old and Athron sounded bullish when talking about his ambition to contribute “to the next exciting phase in its long and illustrious history”. To do this he needs to come up with a plan, and quickly, to maximise UK sales opportunities during lockdown while keeping one eye on the strategic global growth the board views as key to the future.
It’s no small task, especially for a first-time CEO. You sense, however, that Athron will relish the opportunity when he takes over the reins on December 1 – after all, he’s waited much of his career for it to arrive.