M&S finance chief defects to Tesco

LONDON Thu Jul 10, 2014 4:23pm BST

Shopping trolleys are seen lined up at a Tesco supermarket in London April 15, 2014.  REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Shopping trolleys are seen lined up at a Tesco supermarket in London April 15, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

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LONDON (Reuters) - Marks & Spencer Chief Finance Officer Alan Stewart has quit to join Tesco in the same role, jumping ship from one struggling British retailer to another.

Just two days after helping M&S Chief Executive Marc Bolland present first-quarter sales, Stewart has left Britain's biggest clothing retailer to join the world's third-biggest stores group on an increased salary and with a 1.7 million pounds golden hello.

His appointment will be a boost to Tesco CEO Philip Clarke, who is currently the only executive on Tesco's PLC board, and who is facing questions over whether he has the right strategy to turn around the 95-year-old group.

"We wanted a candidate who had the right blend of experience, leadership and values to play a leading role in the transformation of Tesco. We have found all three in Alan," Clarke said.

Stewart abruptly left M&S' central London headquarters after handing in his notice early Thursday, a source familiar with the situation said. But he was unlikely to start work at Tesco before the end of this year due to a six-month notice period and the triggering of a non-compete clause in his contract, the source said.

Shares in M&S were down 1 percent at 1209 GMT (01.09 p.m. BST), while Tesco's shares were up 0.5 percent. Tesco's shares are hovering near 10-year lows, while M&S's are down over 40 percent since their peak in 2007.

Tesco, which has been looking for a new finance chief since Laurie McIlwee announced his intention to quit in April, said Stewart would join "following satisfaction of existing contractual obligations."

OPPORTUNISTIC

Stewart has held the CFO role at M&S since October 2010 and had responsibility for property added to his role just 11 days ago when Bolland shuffled the remits of his executive team.

Stewart is a former finance director of WH Smith and has also held executive roles at HSBC and Thomas Cook.

He leaves Bolland, who is also battling against tough trading and who was criticised by private shareholders at the firm's annual investor meeting on Tuesday.

"I can see why he wants to jump ship, given the gloomy outlook for M&S, and that is a telling blow to the M&S recovery story," independent retail analyst Nick Bubb said.

"Why he thinks Tesco is a better story is a more interesting question. And whether he will be any more investor friendly than his predecessor at Tesco remains to be seen."

Other analysts view Stewart's departure as opportunistic, and did not regard him as central to the delivery of M&S's plans.

Tony Shiret, retail analyst at Espirito Santo Investment Bank, said Stewart had operated at M&S in broadly the same way as when he was at WH Smith - on a lower level than the CEO in both organisations, rather than as a counter-balance and source of strategy origination.

"We expect that this will continue at Tesco and see no reason to adapt our negative stance on that stock following today’s news," he said.

Stewart will see his basic annual salary rise from the 579,000 pounds he was on at M&S to 750,000 pounds at Tesco.

He will also be granted replacement share awards with a value of 1.74 million pounds in lieu of his deferred share awards from M&S that he will forfeit when he joins Tesco.

M&S said Stewart's responsibilities will be carried out on an interim basis by Paul Friston, a former director of financial group control who was recently appointed as executive assistant to Bolland. It said a search for Stewart's successor has started.

(Editing by Kate Holton and Jane Merriman)

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