City grandee Allan Leighton is planning “one of the great turnrounds” as he attempts to revive C&A, a 179-year-old clothing retailer that has fallen out of favour and still relies heavily on traditional stores.
Mr Leighton, who has helped oversee transformations at Asda, Royal Mail and the Co-operative Group, and was appointed chairman of C&A AG in September last year, is shifting power away from the founding Brenninkmeijer family as he focuses on modernising one of Europe’s oldest companies.
He has recruited an external chief executive — Giny Boer, who has spent her career at furniture retailer Ikea — to run C&A’s European operations and brought in more independent directors at the fashion retailer’s parent company.
“The goal is to make it independent of the family,” he told the Financial Times. “It is family-owned but not family-run or family controlled.”
C&A, which quit the UK in 2001 but still operates more than 1,400 stores throughout Europe, was founded by Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer in 1841, and its management has tended to be dominated by members of the Dutch-German Brenninkmeijer family.
“The old rule book no longer exists,” said Mr Leighton. “Family members working within the business are now on the same contract terms as any other executive.”
He said the group, which has no debt and a strong position in markets such as Germany and the Netherlands, had an opportunity to grow significantly.
“The business has not performed for 10 years but over the last 12-18 months the team has done a great job of stabilising it and putting the basics back in place. There is a chance for this to be one of the great turnrounds.”
The post-coronavirus recovery had been stronger in northern Europe than in the UK, at least in terms of stores, he added. “A lot of the recovery in the UK has been in food and online.”
Mr Leighton said there was also a more equal relationship on the continent between retailers and landlords. “In the UK, around 10 very large landlords own many of the key sites. In Europe it is a lot more fragmented,” he added. Like many other retailers, C&A stopped paying rent when its stores closed during lockdown, even on stores owned by other Brenninkmeijer companies.
C&A does not publish financial information, but industry estimates put annual sales at between €5bn and €7bn, with less than 10 per cent of that achieved online.
Mr Leighton is aiming to grow that proportion significantly, modelling the expansion on that of UK retailer Next. “It’s a three- to five-year plan,” he said.
“We will and have closed stores where necessary,” he added. “We ask whether stores generate cash and make profit. If not, then we will close them unless they have a role to play in supporting the omnichannel offering.”
C&A this year said it would close 13 stores in Germany and 30 in France to address underperformance.
Ms Boer will become chief executive of C&A Europe in January, while Birgit Kretschmer will join from Adidas as finance director.
Ms Boer will replace Edward Brenninkmeijer, who will become a non-executive director at C&A AG. She is the second woman to be appointed as chief executive of a major fashion group this year, after Helena Helmersson took over at H&M.
The changes leave Eric Brenninkmeijer as the only family director of C&A’s main trading entity.
Brenninkmeijer family members will also be in a minority on the board of the holding company for the first time, once Maëlys Castella, who previously held board positions at Akzo Nobel and Air Liquide, joins as a non-executive in January.
Mr Leighton said that while he has a good relationship with the family, including the board members, “they know they can’t tell me what to do”.
Since his appointment last year, C&A has sold its Mexican business to Grupo Alto for an undisclosed price and raised more than €400m by floating its Brazilian unit.
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