March 4, 2010 2:00 am
Whitbread, owner of Premier Inn hotels and Costa Coffee, has hinted of its international ambitions with the surprise appointment of Andy Harrison, the outgoing head of EasyJet, as its new chief executive.
Mr Harrison, who said in December he would leave the budget airline, will succeed Alan Parker , who has been credited with turning round Whitbread's fortune s during his six-year tenure and who will retire in November.
The news, which came ahead of the group's trading update today, surprised some industry watchers who tipped Carl Leaver, former international director of Marks and Spencer and a one-time Whitbread executive, for the top job.
Chris Rogers, Whitbread's finance director, and Patrick Dempsey, head of the group's hotels and restaurants division, had also been seen as leading internal candidates for the job.
To outsiders, the choice of an aviation executive such as Mr Harrison to head an FTSE 100 hotel and café operator might appear odd at first glance. However, several analysts and one large shareholder said the appointment made sense.
"If you think about it, the two businesses are very similar in many respects," said one leisure analyst. "An aircraft is a bit like a hotel. You've got a big fixed cost and the returns you get come from getting as many people in at the right price point."
Analysts said Mr Harrison's appointment also underscored Whitbread's international ambitions. While Costa is present in 18 countries, Premier Inn remains a mostly UK business - something that Whitbread insiders said the company hoped to change.
Unlike Michael O'Leary, his voluble opposite number at rival Ryan-air, Mr Harrison, who starts in September, is a quieter individual who has shunned regular media attention. He has, however, overseen a period of important expansion at the airline, where passenger numbers have grown from less than 33m in 2006 to 46m at the start of this year.
Its fleet of aircraft has nearly doubled to more than 180 and the number of routes has grown from about 200 to more than 400.
Perhaps more importantly, he has widened the airline's appeal beyond its cheap and cheeky origins to attract more business passengers, which has allowed it to take on larger rivals. He has done this during a period of unrest at EasyJet during which the airline's founder Sir Stelios HajiIoannou has disagreed with his managers over the extent and pace of
Jamie Rollo, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, said: "We think the appointment is a good one given his good track record there, and the transferable skills he can bring to Premier Inn in a budget offering, yield management, and international growth."
Lombard, Page 18
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