Fresh from setting a record when it came to sacking female directors after the 2008 Just Group takeover, billionaire rag trader Solomon Lew today has further risked his reputation with women by appointing disgraced former David Jones boss Mark McInnes as CEO of Premier Retail.

The announcement was buried on page 21 of this morning’s Premier Investments results presentation that was brought forward after a board meeting last night that saw the incumbent CEO, former Just Group managing director Jason Murray, instantly sacked.

Murray has been executed after delivering flat sales and a 13% profit drop. The disastrous campaign for a new online shopping tax may also have been a factor. The market liked the news, sending Premier shares up 3% in morning trade.

Premier chairman and controlling 42% shareholder Solomon Lew has long been a controversial figure, most notably courtesy of the Yannon scandal in the mid-1990s, which forced him to stand down as Coles Myer chairman.

He was eventually voted off the Coles Myer board altogether in 2002 after the biggest board proxy fight in Australian corporate history.

Lew, 66, took a low profile for the next five years, not even sitting on the board of Premier Investments until he returned as non-executive chairman on March 31, 2008, the same day Premier launched its hostile $900 million bid for Just Group.

Just Group was a unique outfit because it was the first listed Australian company to have four female directors, a feat achieved in July 2007 when Susan Oliver was appointed to the board.

When Premier secured control in August 2008 after a contested takeover battle, the entire Just Group board was sacked in this terse two-paragraph statement.

While Alison Watkins had resigned a few months before the Premier bid, the three remaining female directors, Oliver, Bronwyn Constance and Laura Anderson, were all dismissed without a public word of thanks, as was chairman Ian Pollard and Ian Dahl.

More than two years later, Premier still hasn’t got a female director, even though the vast majority of its staff and customers are female. Two additional blokes, investment banker Tim Antonie and Simon Crean’s brother David Crean, were added to the board in December 2009 after what was claimed to be “an extensive and lengthy selection process“.

The other blokes on the seven man Premier Investment board including trucking billionaire Lindsay Fox, Arnold Bloch Leibler managing partner Henry Lanzer, Gary Weiss and Solly’s long-time accountant Frank Jones.

Joe Hockey was right to claim on Q&A earlier this month that it is incredible Australia still has 85 ASX200 companies with no female directors.

While you could make an exception for a few Perth-based mining companies, it is ridiculous that a female-focused company such as Premier Investments hasn’t got with the program and joined the likes of Newcrest, Alumina, Transurban, Ausenco, SP Ausnet and Asciano, which ended their all-blokes status by appointing solitary female directors over the past year.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Premier has no female directors because surely only a bunch of  blokes could decide to hire Mark McInnes.

If Premier doesn’t appoint a female director in the next six months, then you can be assured that a female candidate will emerge at the 2011 AGM in October.

That said, the blokey board will now find it extremely hard work recruiting a new female director to sit around the table with McInnes after all the claims, publicity and litigation surrounding his exit from David Jones.

It should not be forgotten that McInnes admitted to conduct unbecoming, resigned as CEO, fled the country for a while and then contributed to the $850,000 payout to his victim, David Jones publicist Kristy Fraser-Kirk.

You have to wonder what the women who shop at Just Jeans, Portman, Jacqui E, Smiggle, Dotti, Peter Alexander and Jay Jays think about all this. Maybe Get-Up should get behind a boycott campaign by female shoppers. The targets in the Premier stable are reportedly about to get bigger with talk of an acquisition from the failing Colorado stable.

Solly Lew and his fellow directors have made a major statement hiring McInnes. There wasn’t even anything in today’s ASX releases about Premier’s sensitivity to the matter, although both Solly and McInnes were quoted on The World Today answering the obvious questions.

There will be plenty of issues to raise at the AGM, including what looks like an excessive salary package for McInnes of $2 million in base pay and a potential additional $3.2 million a year from short and long term incentive payments based on performance.

*Stephen Mayne is a small shareholder in Premier Investments and David Jones

Peter Fray

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