Grocery giant Woolworths chief executive resigns in surprise move

Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci. — Bloomberg

SYDNEY: Brad Banducci announced his resignation as chief executive officer (CEO) of Australia’s biggest supermarket chain Woolworths Group Ltd, which has faced growing public anger over rising prices as the cost of living becomes a hot political issue. Banducci will step down in September after eight-and-a-half years in the role, Sydney-based Woolworths said in a statement yesterday.

He will be replaced by company veteran Amanda Bardwell, who will become the first female CEO of the 100-year-old company. She has worked at the retailer for 23 years and is currently head of its loyalty and eCommerce divisions.

Woolworths shares slumped as much as 6.9% in early Sydney trading after the retailer separately said sales growth is softening as consumers become more cautious.

The CEO “transition is a surprise, as it was expected six to 12 months later”, Jarden analyst Ben Gilbert wrote in a note.

“We think the overall result is okay, but the outlook commentary is a little softer, particularly in the context of the current regulatory and cost backdrop.”

Banducci and Coles Group Ltd CEO Leah Weckert were scheduled to appear next month before a Senate inquiry into their price setting practices and “market power” after Australia’s Greens won support from the governing centre-left Labour Party for public hearings.

Coles and Woolworths are the two largest supermarket chains in the country, with just over half the market share combined, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

The companies lead competitors on economies of scale in distribution and from heavy investment into online shopping.

Banducci’s resignation comes just days after a video went viral of him walking out of an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp’s flagship current affairs programme Four Corners, after being questioned about the dominance of the nation’s retailing sector, and allegations of price gouging.

“The changing of the guard at Woolworths comes amidst an arduous period for the business that has seen it thrown into the limelight – and not in a good way,” said Josh Gilbert, an analyst at eToro.

“Bardwell appears to be a great fit to take over the helm at Woolworths, having run two highly successful businesses in eCommerce and Loyalty.”

Separately, Woolworths said first half sales rose 4.4% from a year earlier, driven by an 18% increase in online sales.

The Big W discount department chain had a “challenging first half,” Banducci said. “Outside of solid trading in key events like Black Friday and Christmas, customers are increasingly cautious and trading down.”

Group sales in the first seven weeks of the second half “have continued to moderate reflecting lower inflation and a more cautious consumer,” Banducci said.

Banducci’s departure comes amid recent turnover at the top of some of Australia’s biggest companies.

National Australia Bank Ltd earlier this month announced the departure of CEO Ross McEwan, and Virgin Australia on Tuesday said Jayne Hrdlicka will step down as the airline’s CEO. — Bloomberg

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