Should Myer have considered a woman as its new chief executive?

Fi Bendall /

Embattled department store Myer recently appointed British retail executive John King to lead it out of its current state of peril. King replaces Richard Umbers, who replaced Bernie Brookes in 2015. Brookes was in charge from 2006 until 2015.

Could Myer have opted for a woman to take the reins this time around, after more than a decade of stagnation and crisis? Is it possible the right female executive might have some retail insights and perspectives from which Myer could benefit? Crazy idea, I know.

Myer’s three most recent chief executives, including John King, are all middle-aged men. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. They are all experienced and successful businesspeople. But could Myer’s board have engaged in some out-of-the-box thinking and just maybe have considered the merits of bringing a woman on board as the new chief executive?

For one thing, it could’ve provided the retailer with some excellent PR optics. But deeper than that, Myer is in dire need of redefining its brand and its relationship with its mainly female shoppers. In an age of fast fashion and endless online retail options, the department store game is very much about providing the customer with what they want and an experience to go with that.

Neither Brookes nor Umbers came to Myer with a fashion retail background, which is arguably what most people associate with the brand. Fashion is what gets women through the door and browsing in establishments like Myer. Give them a great experience, and they will shop and tell their friends. That was not been happening at Myer under either Brookes or Umbers.

In fact, outspoken Myer investor and retail veteran Solomon Lew has said some very damning things about the Myer experience. Lew has been in a stoush with the Myer board, so there’s no doubt some political motivation to his comments, but the picture he paints is not pretty.

Lew was blunt when commenting on what he saw at a Myer specialist clearance store.

“That inventory belongs in the Salvation Army,” he told The Australian.

“Having viewed quite a lot of stores … I spend weekends visiting a lot of stores and travelling interstate and you would be horrified if you saw what was really going on out there.’’

The other problem is that Myer mostly missed the online retail revolution. Despite both Brookes and Umbers talking up their respective plans for bringing Myer up to speed with online, it never really eventuated. Regarding online, things are better for Myer now than they were in 2008, but that’s damning with faint praise considering the litany of problems the department store had hid with its digital strategy over the past decade.

New chief executive King has extensive retail experience in the UK and was the chief executive of department store House of Fraser from 2007 to 2015. Credit Suisse analyst Grant Saligari described him as a “safe pair of hands” in the Australian Financial Review:. “He’s thought to have done a reasonable job in a difficult environment in the UK”. 

Since leaving House of Fraser, King appears to have kept himself busy with various business ventures, including involvements in a sportswear company and a security technology company.

While King no doubt brings a different and valuable set of skills to the Myer table compared to Brookes and Umbers, it would have been interesting, and more daring, for Myer to have sought out an experienced and inspirational woman to shake the brand up and make it relevant again.

I’m sure such women are out there. This feels like a lost opportunity for the venerable department store.

NOW READ: The more women in business the better – for all of us

Fi Bendall

Fi Bendall is chief executive of The Female Social Network and a Westpac-AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence, who was described by CEO Magazine as "The CEO's secret weapon". An expert and pioneer in digital strategy, she has over 23 years’ experience in the digital and tech sectors.