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Australian retailer David Jones chief in shock resignation

Pedestrians are reflected in a David Jones Ltd. department store window in Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday, March 29, 2011.

[SYDNEY] The chief executive of Australia's oldest department store has quit suddenly after just 14 months in the job, with its parent company South African retail giant Woolworths Holdings hiring a Marks & Spencer veteran in his place.

Analysts said Ian Nairn's resignation from the helm of iconic institution David Jones, acquired by Woolworths last year for A$2.1 billion (S$2.1 billion), would allow the firm to boost its food retailing operations.

Nairn resigned abruptly late Wednesday "for personal reasons", Woolworths Holdings, one of the world's biggest department store operators, said in a brief statement late on Wednesday.

He will stay on for three months, however, to help replacement John Dixon settle in.

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Woolworths Chief Executive Ian Moir said the appointment of Dixon - who comes from Britain's M&S where he was general merchandise director - reflected his firm's long-term strategy to "take the David Jones business to the next level".

"John is a world class retailer who brings with him a powerful combination of international food and fashion expertise supported by large-scale retail systems and management experience," Moir said.

David Jones reported sales of A$1.89 billion in the 12 months to June, a 6.4 per cent year-on-year increase.

Deutsche Bank analysts Michael Simotas and Daniel Wan said the CEO change could reflect Woolworths' ambitions to lift its share of the Australian food retail market.

"Notably, the Group has (a) 10 per cent share of the South African food market through its premium food offer... which focuses on premium private label and fresh foods," they wrote in a note to clients.

"Woolworths will likely focus on improving the existing David Jones food halls before rolling out standalone stores and it will take time to build relationships with local suppliers."