JAMES Barnes, the long-standing chief executive of Dobbies Garden Centres, has left the Tesco-owned company along with finance director Sharon Brown.
The sudden and unexplained departure of the two senior figures in the Lasswade-based business emerged as Tesco unveiled its latest plans to develop the chain.
Tesco declined to comment on the exit of Barnes and Brown, neither of whom have jobs to go to, according to sources.
It is understood that commercial director Katharine Poulter has taken on the top job on an interim basis.
In a short response to calls, Dobbies said: “James Barnes and Sharon Brown have left Dobbies. James has led Dobbies for 23 years and leaves the business in good shape thanks to his long experience on the board. We have a good platform to bring the brand to more customers, working with the core Tesco business. We will announce their successors in due course.”
Barnes had been with the business since 1989, joining as development director and leading the firm through a management buyout in 1994. He took Dobbies to the stock market three years later.
Tesco bought the business in 2007 in a fierce tussle with Scottish entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter who, at the time, owned the rival Wyevale chain.
Sources claim that Barnes and Brown stood down “amicably” amid talks about taking the company to its next stage of growth.
But retail analyst Nick Bubb said: “It’s been a difficult last year or so in the world of garden centres, because of the unseasonal weather. I guess this is simply about Tesco wanting to take control. The surprise is more that James and Sharon lasted so long under new ownership.”
Dobbies sales for the year to February rose 22 per cent to £136.4 million helped by the full-year impact of seven stores opened in the prior year, including Braehead and Livingston. Profits rose to £10.5m from the previous year’s £9.9m.
Tesco has had its own problems in the last 18 months and under chief executive Philip Clarke is looking to beef up its UK business.
One plan is to make its larger Extra stores more welcoming as customers shift their grocery shopping to smaller Express outlets in town centres. It will open a combined Tesco-Dobbies store in King’s Lynn, Norfolk in October covering 140,000sq ft.
The company wants to develop stores as destinations and in recent months has acquired the Euphorium Bakery outlets, Harris & Hoole coffee shops, and has added a gym to one store in Teesside. The company is talking to Sports Direct about letting space in another move suggesting it wants to outsource more of its activities rather than trying to operate across all retail sectors. The firm is in talks with Blackcircles, the Peebles-based online tyre fitter.
Tesco’s managing director for developing businesses, Jill Easterbrook, stays on as chairman of Dobbies. She joined Tesco in 2001 as a business development manager and became a board member of Dobbies last December. Clarke hailed her as “one of our most talented leaders” when he unveiled a management shake up in January.
Dobbies has been based on the outskirts of Edinburgh since 1934 and Barnes’ father David acquired it in 1984.
The firm currently has 32 stores and has plans to have 100 by the end of the decade, a target that some consider ambitious.