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Changing the leader when the going gets tough?

26 September 2015

9:00 AM

26 September 2015

9:00 AM

It’s as questionable in business as it is in politics: when facing the prospect of disaster, just change the leader and everything will be OK. As the slide in profits and share-prices of Australia’s largest retailer, Woolworths, have mirrored former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s dismal personal polling, its shareholders are still wondering who their ‘magic Malcolm’ will turn out to be.

The ultimate success or otherwise of the Liberals’ Turnbull turn-around will be revealed in next year’s federal election. But the millions of Australians who either directly or through their super funds are Woolworths’ shareholders will by then have only just welcomed their incoming ‘saviour’ to replace outgoing CEO Grant O’Brien.

Woolies new chairman, former Fairfax boss Gordon Cairns, who is accustomed to being the bearer of bad tidings, last month announced yet another 12.5 per cent fall in 2014-15 profits in what has been described as ‘one of its worst performances in its 22 years as a public company’, with commentators warning shareholders to ‘brace for another drop in profit this financial year’ as the risk of a grocery price war looms. And as Woolies is seen by shoppers as the most expensive chain, it has the most to lose.


This will stem not only from Woolworths’ own efforts to correct its sliding market share by cutting prices, to which rival Coles is certain to retaliate, but also from the aggressive expansion plans of cut-price German competitor Aldi. Market analysts agree that Woolworths had ‘lost its way’ and must change its focus away from the short-term higher-margin business that has been at the expense of sales and customers. It has already begun to go down that track, having undertaken to target $500 million in lower prices and improvements for customers in-store, with a reported $200 million reduction in shelf prices already.

So the forecasts are for further profit falls to come, along with some surgery to remove the cancer eating into the profitability of its core business – the unfortunate Masters hardware chain (being thoroughly belted by Bunnings, which is Coles partner in the Westfarmers stable) that is a joint venture with the US home improvement chain Lowes. Some are suggesting the possible offloading of Big W and even the petrol business. But its rewarding investment in hospitality (through the currently expanding ALH hotel/gambling group) and liquor via the strikingly successful Dan Murphy chain (massively outperforming Coles’ Liquorland) remain bright spots in a cloudy outlook.

But the rapidly increasing Aldi threat to the $90 billion Australian food and grocery market is a serious problem, not only for Woolworths and Coles but also for the Metcash group of independents, all of whom have lost market share to Aldi during is 15 year climb to reach about 10 per cent of eastern state sales and is now moving west. The Australian newspaper recently reported Aldi’s plans to open up to another 80 new stores across Australia next year. This 20 per cent jump in Aldi outlets to 476 by the end of 2016 would make it an even greater threat to the 776 Coles supermarkets and the 961 of market leader Woolworths. It quoted a recent survey by investment banker UBS that Aldi was ‘unstoppable’ with its increasingly ‘rusted on customers more loyal to it than to any other supermarket chain’, so its growth momentum will be maintained, as will Coles’, but Woolies’ would slow. And in an unexpected revelation at the recent Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance and minimisation, the normally secretive privately-owned Australian operation disclosed a doubling of sales and profit over the three years to 2013, to sales of $6 billion and pre-tax profit of $261 million, suggesting a 4 per cent pre- tax profit margin.

So the challenge for Woolies is whether the change in leadership will solve its evident problems. Change, like ‘reform’ is not necessarily for the better in either politics or business; Labor’s Prime Ministerial Rudd/Gillard musical chairs ended up in tears as did Hills Industries, whose ‘new broom’ saviour ended up hoist on his own petard.

Woolworths may be the Fresh Food People, but now it needs a Fresh Direction and a Fresh Face.

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