A woman walks past a Woolworths store in Cape Town. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
A woman walks past a Woolworths store in Cape Town. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

Woolworths chairman, Simon Susman will hand over leadership in 12 months, effectively ending a 36-year tenure at the retailer, which in recent times has been wobbled by its disastrous expansion into Australia.

Woolworths’s share price declined by as much as 4.4% to an intraday low of R53.16, before closing 3.5% weaker at R53.68, pushing its drop so far in 2018  to 18%.

Woolworths said on Monday that Susman and the company’s lead independent director, Tom Boardman, would step down after the 2019 AGM. The retailer appointed Hubert Brody, a former CEO of Imperial Holdings and Sanlam’s Personal Finance as deputy chairman,  in anticipation that he will take over.  Brody has served on the board since 2014. Boardman will be replaced by independent nonexecutive director Zarina Bassa.

Patrice Rassou, head of equities at Sanlam Investment Management said Woolworths’s board has appointed “very capable” individuals . He doesn’t anticipate a change in strategy. 

While Susman will officially step down next year, he will  maintain his  life-long relationship with Woolworths, becoming an honorary president.He will retain an office at Woolworths’s headquarters in Cape Town.

Jean Pierre Verster, portfolio manager at Fairtree Capital said the honorary president title was an acknowledgement of the role Susman has played in building Woolworths into a leading retailer in SA.

“Although Woolworths has operations in Australia, the biggest part of the business is in SA and he played a crucial role in building that. It looks like he will continue being involved in the company’s social responsibility strategy.”

The company has made headlines lately as a result of its botched move to Australia, which saw it report its first annual loss since listing in 1997. It said earlier this month that it was pulling the David Jones brand in SA, having written down the value of that business by as much as A$713m (about R7.5bn), after paying more than R20bn for it four years ago.

Susman is the second-generation in his family to have led Woolworths. His father, David played a vital role in Woolworths's early years, especially the formation of Wooltru. Simon joined Woolworths in 1982 and was instrumental in the formation of Woolworths’s food business. He served as the retailer’s CEO for ten years from 2000 to 2010, a period in which Woolworths's share price rose from R2,60 to over R26. 

buthelezil@businesslive.co.za