Coles Myer CEO John Fletcher was an old army guy who spent 27 years at Brambles, one of the most unglamorous industrial services companies you would find anywhere. Cleanaway rubbish removal work, CHEP pallets and shipping is about as far removed from a department store fashion show as you could get.

When Coles Myer hired Fletcher in 2001, everyone laughed because he admitted to not having been to a supermarket for decades. Crikey remarked at the time that even stranger was the notion that Fletcher would be responsible for the whole glamour game of fashion, lippy, women’s wear and supermodels that comes with running a department store like Myer.

Therefore it came as no surprise that Fletcher threw himself into nailing a petrol offer and restructuring Coles Myer’s logistics and supply chain functions. These are things he could easily comprehend from his Brambles days.

Fletcher was also notoriously secretive when he ran Brambles, eschewing media conferences and analysts briefings whenever he could. But he’s learned a little bit about the PR game at Coles Myer, and last Thursday he fronted up to the half year results wearing his Officeworks shirt, which again is an unglamorous part of the business he could associate with. However, it was this exchange with Alan Kohler on Inside Businessyesterday that really caught our eye:

ALAN KOHLER: Have you got a fundamental problem with Myer in that there are a number of categories within Myer, perhaps 20 or so that are redundant because they have been overtaken by category killers and specialty stores, but you can’t really close down those departments of the department stores because you’ve got nothing else to put there and empty space is even less profitable than what is there now.

JOHN FLETCHER: Yeah, look, I think in any department store, Alan, a retailer’s job is to manage how they allocate their space and I think one of the things Dawn has been doing is in some respects exactly where you’ve gone to. She has been increasing the amount of space allocated to women’s wear and men’s wear and cosmetics and shoes which is what she has been really good at selling and downsizing some of the other categories at the same time. So in a sort of strange sort of way, exactly what you’ve said is what Myers’ future is going to be about, is opening up the space on the things that she really wants to be famous for and lessening some of those once that have been taken by categories.

Is Fletcher suggesting that Dawn Robertson is putting her fame ahead of Coles Myer profits? It certainly sounded like a put-down. The highly paid American import has thrown herself into the social pages in her quest to win the fashion war against David Jones, but so far she is getting absolutely cleaned up.

Myer last week reported flat earnings before interest and tax of $60.7 million on stagnant sales of $1.667 billion for the half year. Compare that with David Jones which delivered an EBIT of $95.3 million on sales of $1.77 billion for the 2003-04 financial year and is expected to produce a strong half year profit later this month.

Fletcher was playing down suggestions that Robertson would be fired on February 12 when he said: “There is no substance at all to the prospect of Dawn leaving. Over the Christmas period she has moved from her rental accommodation into a new place she has bought for her family.”

However, we’re tipping she’ll go on May 12, as removing her before her third anniversary on May 11 triggers an additional $1 million payout under her contract.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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