Is Asda right for Mark Price?

The two names most frequently mentioned as successors to Andy Bond – outgoing chief executive of Asda – are Asda trading director Darren Blackhurst and Waitrose managing director Mark Price.

Price would be an inspired and City-pleasing choice, given his performance at Waitrose, but I wonder whether such speculation is wide of the mark (so to speak). Let’s leave aside the fact that the ceo shortlist is very much biased towards insiders (for instance chief operating officer Andy Clarke and Wal-Mart’s David Cheesewright have also appeared on it) – and that an internal candidate would be in the Asda tradition. What would Price have to gain from such a move? Well, all right – recognition, a broader challenge and, of course, a bigger pay packet. But he could gain that anyway, if he hangs on a little longer at Waitrose. The key thing he lacks at John Lewis, and what he would also lack as a Wal-Mart employee were he to be offered the Asda job, is plc experience.

The plc issue seems to have been a catalyst in Bond’s own ‘surprise’ decision to stand down as Asda ceo after five very successful years at the helm. To be sure, relatively poor trading by Britain’s second-largest grocer during the Christmas period may have caused a bit of friction with Wal-Mart top brass as well. But if anyone thinks that was the real reason for Bond’s decision – after a preceding 15 consecutive quarters of unblemished growth – I cannot do better than quote Planet Retail analyst Bryan Roberts back at them: if Bond is leaving as a result of Asda’s recent trading “then Tesco boss Terry Leahy should be scared.”

Signs of frustration with Wal-Mart have long been apparent, for those who cared to read them. Like former Asda star Justin King – now heading Sainsbury’s – Bond was linked with the role of chief executive at Marks & Spencer; unlike King, Bond took his time in denying any interest. There has also been a suggestion that Bond resented Wal-Mart’s bone-headedness in refusing to provide the financial firepower that would have enabled Asda to better compete with Tesco through an acquisitions programme (embracing, for example, Matalan or Homebase).

As it is, Bond seems to have nicely parlayed himself into a three-day-a-week job as chairman of the Asda executive committee, from which he can consider at leisure his options in the wider business world. These include the Archie Norman/Allan Leighton portfolio route; or the more direct plc path favoured by the likes of King at Sainsbury’s and Richard Baker at Boots. One things is for certain: Bond won’t be short of offers.

Which brings me back to Price and plcs. Price, like Bond, has spent much of his career working his way up one organisation; even longer, in fact, than Bond’s 16 years at Asda. As much as anyone can be – as its first marketing director, now its managing director – the self-styled Chubby Grocer is Mr Waitrose. If he’s going to jump ship from John Lewis after all this time, he should set his sights higher than Asda.

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