WH Smith in rude health as boss departs 227-year-old retailer

WH Smith boss Stephen Clarke is to step down at the end of October after six years at the helm of the venerable retailer.

The groups travel division has been the key driver of sales growth in recent years. Picture: WH Smith
The groups travel division has been the key driver of sales growth in recent years. Picture: WH Smith

Clarke will be replaced as group chief executive on 1 November by Carl Cowling, who is currently managing director of the group’s high street arm.

The chief executive’s departure caps a 15-year tenure at the company, while his stint in the top job has seen the chain’s shares nearly triple as its travel division has buoyed sales and profits amid tough retail conditions.

Clarke said: “It really has been a great privilege to lead WH Smith for the last six years and I am extremely proud of what we have achieved during my time as chief executive.

“WH Smith has a first-class team who are focused on running the business in the best interests of our customers, shareholders and employees.”

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He added: “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.”

News of Clarke’s departure came as the chain, which can trace its roots back to 1792, confirmed ongoing pressure on its high street division, with like-for-like sales down 1 per cent in its third quarter.

But the travel division saw like-for-like sales rise 3 per cent – surging 26 per cent on a total basis, including its recent acquisition of US travel accessories retailer InMotion. This left overall group comparable sales up 1 per cent in the 11 weeks to 18 May, while total sale including InMotion jumped 15 per cent.

Chairman Henry Staunton paid tribute to Clarke’s “outstanding contribution” to the firm.

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He said: “The board is particularly grateful to him for his dedication and leadership which 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.”

He added that the incoming boss has been “instrumental” to helping deliver the group’s performance, having previously also headed the travel business since joining in 2014. Cowling also formerly held senior executive roles at Dixons and Carphone Warehouse.

“I am committed to continuing to deliver excellent shareholder returns and look forward to leading WH Smith to its next stage of growth,” added Cowling.

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Russ Mould, investment director at Manchester-headquartered investment firm AJ Bell, noted: “Stephen Clarke is stepping down as chief executive after six years at the top, a time during which he oversaw 24 per cent growth in pre-tax profit and a 177 per cent rise in the share price.

“While Clarke certainly deserves credit for helping WH Smith to avoid the pains affecting the broader retail sector, one must remember that the true architect of the company’s turnaround was actually previous boss Kate Swann.

“She made the business run more efficiently, sorted out a pension problem and, crucially, created a thriving travel business with WH Smith gaining a strong foothold in train stations, airports and motorway service stations.”