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Warehouse veteran pressured to take top job

By Deborah Hill Cone

Friday 4th July 2003

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Battling retailer The Warehouse might trade a CEO with an MBA for one with a BSW.

"I tell everyone my main qualification is a BSW ­ a Bachelor of Street Wise," Warehouse property director and member of the board Glen Inger said.

Mr Inger is the pick from industry insiders to take over the seat vacated by MBA-graduate chief executive Greg Muir a month ago ­ even though he has still not decided whether he will throw his hat in the ring.

"I'll have a hard look at it but there might be some [retail] 'rock stars' from the other side of the world who want to move here for lifestyle reasons," Mr Inger said.

Mr Inger is only 40 years old but a retailing veteran. He learned the business from the shop floor up as a Woolworths management trainee and has been at founder Stephen Tindall's side since The Warehouse's early days almost 20 years ago. Mr Inger said he was approached to apply for the CEO job "last time" but decided against it.

"I prefer to keep it low key and stay in the background as opposed to being out in front all the time," Mr Inger said.

But he said he might be persuaded to put his hand up this time if the right person can't be found.

He and his wife Joanne own a total of 5.5 million shares, The Warehouse annual report shows. At today's price they are worth $28.2 million, $14 million less than they were at the stock's height last year ­ surely something that would focus the mind.

But the CEO job would be a challenge ­ the listed company's share price collapsed last month on news its Australian operations were losing money.

Founder Mr Tindall stepped into the top job and is trying to turn around the Australian performance, a task dubbed Project Urgency.

"Our pride is at stake at the moment and we're a bunch of determined people," Mr Inger said.

The Warehouse chairman Keith Smith said a shortlist of headhunter companies had been put together to handle the worldwide search.

The board's preference was for a local person with a retail background and it had several potential internal candidates but it would look for the best possible person for the job, Mr Smith said.

Would an international CEO be at odds with The Warehouse being proudly Kiwi?

"Not at all. We are a proud New Zealand company and we want to ensure we remain [one]. This means we must ensure that we get the best possible person for the job," Mr Smith said.

If The Warehouse does lure a top international retailer here, the chosen one will still have to fly in the back of the bus in The Warehouse way.

"I didn't particularly enjoy sitting in the back of the plane or sharing a hotel room but it does send a clear signal to the rest of the organisation," a former Warehouse executive said.

The retail chain's share price is continuing to rebound since Mr Tindall took back the top job, with shares back to $5.13 at press time from a low of $3.96 in June.

ASB Securities' managing director Tim Preston said the market had over-reacted when it sent the shares down to that low, given the New Zealand operations alone justified a share price of $5.

The shares were trading as high as $7.70 last year.

Mr Preston said The Warehouse had shown it could fix serious issues in New Zealand in the past such as IT and stock level problems, so there was no reason to think it could not do the same in Australia.

Calls to Mr Tindall were being directed, unusually, to an intermediary, former McKinsey & Co strategist Phil Jamieson, who was "babysitting" the media contact role because Mr Tindall was so busy with Project Urgency, the CEO's office said.

Sources have questioned whether Mr Muir's classical MBA-trained management style did not fit The Warehouse's anti-corporate culture ­ and that maybe someone like Mr Inger would be better suited.

"The Warehouse in New Zealand has lost that element of surprise, excitement and bite ­ but it has become neat, tidy and methodical. The challenge is to get that element back," a former Warehouse manager said.

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