Despite previously admitting that he had never run a shop in his life, Lewis will take over leadership of the group’s most significant business, which generates the lion’s share of profits.
Lewis’s decision to take the reins follows last week’s disastrous handling of its Black Friday sales when police were called to restore order in at least 16 stores where staff were overwhelmed by bargain hunting customers. A senior policeman later referred to the scenes in some of its supermarkets as akin to a mini riot and scolded senior executives, arguing the force’s “scarce resources should not be used to bail out stores when they’ve not planned effectively”.
Lewis replaces Chris Bush, the former UK managing director, who was suspended in September following the unearthing of the £264m accounting scandal that is now in the hands of the Serious Fraud Office. Bush stepped aside from the business along with three others: Kevin Grace, the group commercial director, Carl Rogberg, the UK finance director, and John Scouler, food commercial director. The four men are now understood to have left the company.
Analysts said the move exposed the shallow talent pool at the struggling grocer. Nick Bubb, an independent retail analyst, said: “It is tough to [be chief executive and run the UK operation] in a group as big as Tesco with its large Asian and European operations. I wish him good luck … a phrase like shuffling the deckchairs comes to mind. Tesco has huge problems and they shouldn’t be underestimated.”
A Tesco insider added: “Since taking charge of Tesco, Dave Lewis has immersed himself in the day-to-day. The announcement says he is taking the job temporarily so it may be that he is looking for additional talent.”
Tesco also revealed that Matt Simister, who was one of four more junior executives asked to step aside as the investigation unfolded, will return to his role as group food sourcing director next week. Lewis said: “We asked Matt to step aside to facilitate our recent investigation into commercial income recognition. During our work it became clear that Matt, in fact, worked tirelessly to resolve the issues we faced. Matt is one of our most capable leaders, and I am confident his leadership will support our agenda in commercial going forward.”
Three further executives remain suspended over the accounting irregularities. The investigations into that more junior trio started at a later date.
The news of Lewis, a former Unilever executive, being forced to take control of Tesco’s UK business was buried in a statement announcing a restructuring of the management team at the grocer. The changes see Robin Terrell, former online boss at the retailer who had stood in for Bush during his suspension, move to a new role as Tesco’s head of customer. Meanwhile, Jason Tarry, formerly head of clothing at Tesco, who has been standing in for Scouler, becomes head of commercial for the UK and the Tesco group.
In a surprise move, Benny Higgins is taking on responsibility for group strategy, in addition to his role leading the bank and international financial services business.
Tesco said the changes to the company structure left no role for chief creative officer Matt Atkinson or group business planning and strategy director David Hobbs – neither of whom were implicated in the accounting scandal – and the men are expected to leave the business.
Lewis is taking charge of the UK chain during the most important trading weeks of the year.
While analysts point to some improvements in Tesco stores, with fewer holes on shelves and shorter queues at its checkouts, that is yet to translate into improved trading with recent market share data showing Tesco’s performance continuing to lag that of its rivals.
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