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Retail is changing, so are its CEOs

businessman hand draws target customers diagram on white boardIn 2014 a number of retail CEO’s bit the dust in the USA.

Here are some examples:

  • Gregg Steihaffel – Target
  • Bill Simon – Walmart
  • Frank Blake – Home Depot
  • Mike Ullman – J.C.Penney
  • Mike Jeffries – Abercrombie & Fitch
  • Dov Charney – American Apparel
  • William Lynch – Barnes & Nobel
  • Ken Hicks – Foot Locker
  • Robert Hanson – American Eagle Outfitters
  • Glenn Murphy – Gap Inc
  • Greg Watson – Walgreen

And in Australia in the last year or so we have seen the departures of:

  • Bernie Brookes – Myer
  • Paul Zahra – David Jones
  • Alistair McGeorge – Big W
  • Grant O’Brien – Woolworths
  • Jeff David – Greencross
  • Peter Halkett – Kathmandu

Is there a link? Is it catching? Is there something in the water?

Or is it a generational change that we are witnessing?

On May 16 2014, Amy Merrick wrote in the New Yorker about What Retail CEO’s Don’t Understand.

The problem with more mature retailers (of which I am one) is that we believe that you need to start off young tidying the stockroom in the basement. The younger you were, the more horrific the story, the better. In my case there was an underground river in the basement and a sump pump switched on every now and again to keep the place dry. There were sewer rats all over the place. And have I told the story once or a hundred times, each time with increasing pride and increasing size of the rats.

Merrick argues, “The younger you were and the lowlier the position, the better the story”.

But as us old geezers move on, we are being replaced by a new breed of CEO’s.

The classic example of “What Retail CEO’s Don’t Understand” is Gregg Steinhafel, ex-CEO of Target USA.

“Steinhafel has a sharp eye for details, but not the ones that could protect his business or save his job. Last year, a data breach at Target’s cash registers resulted in forty million customers having their credit- and debit-card numbers stolen during the holiday shopping season,” Merrick writes.

Target (Gregg) was slow to react and it cost him his job.

Now take a look at those who are replacing the fallen CEO’s and you will notice a pattern. There is a move towards CIOs and other non roll-up-your-sleeves-and-suffer retailers taking over as CEOs. I was mildly critical when Richard Umbers (ex-CIO) took over as CEO of Myer. I did comment however, that I have a good feeling about Richard. Rory Crawford was CIO of Strandbags and was appointed CEO when Iain Campbell left and Rory has done a wonderful job.

Then there is Peter Birtles, an ex-CFO who was appointed CEO of Supercheap. Heavens forbid – a bean counter! And what an extraordinary job he has done and is now regarded as a top retail player.

Then there was the recent appointment by Richard Umbers of Mark Cripsey into the newly created role of chief digital and data officer, as part of the retailer’s focus on omnichannel retailing and customer data. Good heavens – I was critical again. After all, what is retail coming too?

I must eat humble pie. I must retract my comments with regard to the new breed. I must move with the times and recognise that retailing is changing forever. I said that this decade would witness the most significant change in retail ever. But I said this from my perspective as a generational retailer. I had not made the full conversion. It is incumbent on consultants to be introspective and to move with the times while retaining and contributing a lifetime of retail experience.

This goes far deeper than using the last year’s buzz words. I thank IR for the opportunity to write this weekly column. Every week I am challenged and I learn. I have written hundreds of articles and yet a new one needs to be found and researched weekly. This is what keeps some retail consultants on their toes.

Stuart Bennie is a retail consultant at Impact Retailing and can be contacted at or 0414 631 702.

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