Big shot of the week
DAVE LEWIS, 52 CHIEF EXECUTIVE, TESCO
DAVE whhhooo?’ grocers unisoned when Dave Lewis was appointed chief executive of Tesco in 2014. Lewis, now 52, wasn’t just the first outsider to take charge of the supermarket. The guy was a total nobody.
He’d been a ‘lifer’ at consumer giant Unilever – which he joined straight out of Nottingham Polytechnic – and was known to underlings as ‘Drastic Dave’ on account of his ruthless turnaround skills.
A drab and witless sobriquet, you might think, but that’s consumer bods for you.
While the whiskery, Yorkshireborn grammar- school boy was clearly a talent, on the up and up – Unilever boss Paul Polman was loath to see him go – colleagues wondered if he lacked the charisma to take on the most highprofile job in business. More pertinently, what on earth did he know about supermarkets?
Shareholders flinched, analysts furrowed their brows quizzically, while retail journalists already began pencilling their told-youso obituaries.
Such scepticism was understandable. Tesco, by this stage, was in a rum old state. With cut-price rivals Aldi and Lidl causing havoc, sales had slumped to their lowest in 20 years. The halcyon days of Sir Terry Leahy, who’d shown a Sir Alex Ferguson-like foresight in retiring in 2011 before things went south, already seemed a distant memory.
LEAHY’S successor, Phil Clarke, had been a oneman disaster zone, and entrusting the job to a consumer man like Lewis looked like a desperate lurch into the unknown.
If Lewis was daunted, he didn’t show it. He admitted he was ‘wonderfully naive’ about what lay ahead. But had Lewis known at the time of the steaming pile of manure that was about to be deposited in his in-tray, he might not have appeared quite so insouciant. Two weeks after he had taken charge in September 2014, a whistleblower revealed the company had overstated its profits by £263m. The immediate fall-out saw 12pc knocked off the share price, plunging Tesco into the biggest crisis in its 95-year history.
Its flagging balance sheet was also in dire need of attention, following a string of profit warnings under Clarke’s tenure.
‘Drastic’ lived up to his name by jettisoning superfluous parts of the empire, including Giraffe restaurants, Dobbies Garden Centres and much of Tesco’s international divisions that had been built up under his predecessors.
Gone too were the fleet of private jets, including a £30m Gulfstream.
Two years on, and Lewis was able to report annual profits of £162m. A world away from the £4bn they peaked at in 2012. But considering the £6.4bn loss posted the previous year, he could at least claim to have put the firm back on track.
He is married to second wife Helena, 46, and has two daughters from a previous marriage. The cou- ple live in Richmond, where neighbours report seeing a stream of supermarket delivery trucks outside, dropping off rival products that Lewis likes to stay abreast of.
In his rare down-time he enjoys jogging along the river bank and squeezing in the odd game of golf or ‘any racquet sport’.
The accountancy scandal has now finally been put to bed after the grocer was this week forced to cough up £129m in fines by the Serious Fraud Office.
BUT another headache looms. Lewis’s plans to take over wholesaler Booker in a £3.7bn deal has provoked a shareholder backlash. The board’s senior independent director, Compass boss Richard Cousins, quit over the deal in January.
Meanwhile, Tesco’s second largest shareholder, Schroders, this week took the unusual step of going on Radio 4’s Today programme to air their dissatisfaction, a surprising vote of no confidence in a man who’s just dug them out of a hole.
Will Lewis hang around? Beady headhunters are already drawing up their lists of replacements for his old Unilever boss Polman, who’s rumoured to be nearing the end of his tenure.
Scribbled at the top there’s likely to be the previously unknown name of Dave Lewis.