JOHN ALLAN, CEO of EXEL. Pic taken at Bracknell office for FTD.
John Allan

Billed as the toughest job in the retail sector, John Allan’s appointment as the new Tesco chairman surprised some, who thought the job would go to veteran supermarket retailer Archie Norman.

A regular face in the boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies, Mr Allan’s extensive experience spans retail, logistics and latterly housebuilding. But what were the qualities that impressed the Tesco board?

He’s a boardroom heavyweight

The 66-year-old’s corporate CV is longer than most Tesco till receipts. He will relinquish his role as deputy chairman of retailer Dixons Carphone and non-executive director at Royal Mail, but will remain chairman of housebuilder Barratt Developments. Previously chairman of Samsonite, he has been a non-executive at National Grid, PHS Group and Hamleys — and many others.

He has a head for numbers . . .

Mr Allan graduated with a degree in mathematical sciences from the University of Edinburgh in 1970, and was finance director of Deutsche Post for many years. He is well-armed to oversee the process of rebuilding Tesco’s balance sheet, following the discovery of a £263m black hole last year.

. . . and orchestrating mergers

Though he prefers a behind-the-scenes role, Mr Allan was an instrumental figure in the £3.7bn merger of Dixons and Carphone Warehouse last year. As chief executive of freight company Ocean Group in the 1990s, Mr Allen orchestrated a bold merger with rival NFC that led to the creation of Exel, the logistics group. As chief executive, he oversaw Exel’s expansion that led to Deutsche Post’s £3.6bn takeover in 2005.

He’s a ‘hands off’ chairman . . .

In a 2009 interview, Mr Allan said it was not a chairman’s role to interfere with strategy. “It is terribly important, especially for chairmen who have previously been chief executives, that you do not attempt to be a substitute chief executive,” he said in a rare interview with the Mail on Sunday. “It is not the responsibility of the chairman and the non-executives to run the company, but to ensure it is well managed, with good governance.”

He cited Sir John Parker, the veteran National Grid chairman, as his role model, praising his ability to get the whole board to contribute to discussions.

. . . but he asks tough questions

Boardroom contemporaries describe Mr Allan as “thoughtful”, “measured”, “level headed” and “rounded”, who “understands all the business drivers”. Nevertheless, he is renowned for his rapid-fire approach in the boardroom, with one executive noting his tendency to “ask lots of very good questions, very quickly — and then he moves on”. Another executive notes: “He’s not the type of guy to bang his fists on the table.”

He’s seen as a retail turnround merchant

The Dixons share price has quadrupled since Mr Allen became chairman in 2009. Struggling in the wake of the credit crunch and cheaper online competitors, he saw off competition from Best Buy Europe, revamped stores and sold off lossmaking parts of the empire as competitors including Comet crumbled.

He has rapport with government

Previously a non-executive member of the Home Office Supervisory Board, Mr Allen’s previous roles at the CBI and Freight Transport Association means he has experience of speaking to government. “He knows how to talk to senior civil servants and they listen to him,” says one colleague. He will need all his negotiating powers as he steers Tesco through investigations by the Serious Fraud Office and Groceries Code Adjudicator. In 2006, he was awarded the CBE for services to freight transport.

He ticks the international box

Mr Allen has previously worked in Germany, Singapore and spent a lot of time travelling in Europe as chairman of Dixons — not to mention his background in global logistics.

He has (historic) food retail experience

Mr Norman’s background as the former boss of Asda led many in the City to believe he was a shoo-in for the Tesco role. Mr Allan, who started his career with Lever Brothers in the 1970s, went on to spend eight years as the head of marketing, buying and store operations for Associate British Food’s now-defunct grocery chain Fine Fare.

And finally . . . he’s a fan of Scandi Noir

In an interview with the FT in 2011, Mr Allen confessed that his frequent trips to oversee Dixons’ Scandinavian business had given him a taste for Scandi Noir fiction and the television crime series Wallander and The Killing. One retail analyst quipped: “There’s been enough intrigue in Cheshunt [Tesco’s headquarters] to keep him occupied for years to come.”

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