Clarke steps down from W H Smith as group reports strong sales

Clarke steps down from W H Smith as group reports strong sales

Stephen Clarke is stepping down as group chief executive at W H Smith with high street m.d. Carl Cowling to take on the role, as the group reports strong sales in its latest report. 

After 15 years with the retailer and six years as group chief executive, Clarke will leave on 31st October 2019 with Cowling, who joined in 2014 as m.d. for W H Smith Travel before joining the board and being made m.d. of the retailer's High Street arm, to take up the role with effect from 1st November 2019. 

Chairman Henry Staunton said: "Stephen has made an outstanding contribution to WH Smith. The Board is particularly grateful to him for his dedication and leadershipwhich has seen WH Smith go from strength to strength and deliver exceptional shareholder value over the last six years. He has built an excellent management team and has put in place a proven strategy which will continue to deliver for all our stakeholders. We wish Stephen well for the future.

"I am delighted that Carl will be Stephen's successor. Carl has been instrumental in the development and execution of our successful strategy that has led to the Company's outstanding performance. Carl has the qualities and experience to lead the Company and continue to deliver superior shareholder returns over the years to come. Carl will work alongside Robert Moorhead, c.f.o.\c.o.o. since 2008, who has supported Stephen over the last six years and Robert will continue to bring his significant experience and retail expertise to the Board."

Prior to joining W H Smith, Cowling spent his entire career in the retail industry, including over a decade at Dixons where he held the roles of e-commerce director, commercial director and m.d. of the airport retailing business, Dixons Travel. Prior to joining W H Smith Travel in 2014, Cowling was m.d. of global partnerships at Carphone Warehouse.  

He said: "To lead this great company and succeed Stephen at W H Smith is a wonderful opportunity and I am excited by the future prospects of the Group. I am committed to continuing to deliver excellent shareholder returns and look forward to leading W H Smith to its next stage of growth, supported by the excellent teams across our Travel, International and High Street businesses."

As he prepares to leave, Clarke said he was "extremely proud" of what W H Smith achieved during his time as chief executive and added it has been a "great privilege to lead W H Smith for the last six years". 

"W H Smith has a first-class team who are focused on running the business in the best interests of our customers, shareholders and employees. I am also delighted that the Board has appointed Carl as my successor. I know that WH Smith will continue to thrive under his leadership for years to come. I am fully committed to working with Carl in order to ensure a smooth transition. After I leave WH Smith, I have no immediate plans other than to take a break," said Clarke. "Lastly, I would like to thank all of our people right across the business and around the world. It is their focus, hard work and commitment that has enabled WH Smith to deliver consistent profit growth in a very tough market place. They all have my sincere gratitude."

The changes come as the group issued a trading update for the 11 week period from 1st March to 18th May 2019 with total group sales  up 15% (up 4% excluding InMotion) with like-for-like sales up 1% compared to last year.

For W H Smith Travel, total sales were up 26% (up 7% excluding InMotion) and like-for-like sales were up 3% with the retailer confirming plans to open around 20 units in the UK including 10 hospital stores.

For W H Smith High Street, the group is continuing with its "profit focused strategy" with total sales down 1% and like-for-like sales also down 1%. "Gross margin continues to improve, and cost savings have been delivered in line with plan," said the report, with stationery continuing to perform well. 

Clarke said: “We have delivered a strong sales performance in the third quarter in both our Travel and High Street businesses. Whilst there is some uncertainty in the broader economic and political environment, we are well placed as we approach the key summer trading period in Travel. We continue to focus on profitable growth, cash generation and investing in the business to position us well for the future. We remain confident in the outcome for the full year.”

Clarke's departure is the latest in a raft of staff changes. In February, W H Smith confirmed Pete Selby's appointment in the newly-created role of head of books as Sue Scholes and Sandra Bradley leave the retailer