In the combined 200-year history of Australia’s two large supermarket chains, they have never been led by a woman. On Tuesday, Coles broke that ignominious bicentennial drought.
Leah Weckert’s appointment as chief executive of the nation’s second-biggest grocery giant is as momentous as it is bizarre in that it has taken this long. What more appropriate industry to have women at the helm than that of supermarkets, whose customers are largely female?
It seems fitting that in the lead-up to International Women’s Day, one of the biggest roles in corporate Australia has been entrusted to Weckert, a mother of two, who now joins the scant 7 per cent of female chief executives among the country’s top 200 companies.
Coles incoming chief executive Leah Weckert.
It will surprise no-one that the 43-year-old manager has hefty credentials and experience, and has performed strongly in a range of different jobs she has undertaken at Coles.
She was a star performer at management consultancy McKinsey, has an MBA from Harvard, has degrees in science and engineering, and had a stint as head of strategy and business development at Fosters.
Weckert was headhunted from McKinsey to join Coles in 2011 and has circulated around the company – taking on a wide array of roles including chief financial officer, heading up supermarkets in Victoria as well as leading the culture and HR team and most recently running its commercial and Express unit.
She came to the attention of Coles chairman James Graham in her early years at the company, when she was instrumental in dealing with the supermarket’s split from its parent company Wesfarmers and its subsequent listing on the stock exchange.
Weckert’s earlier appointment as chief financial officer was unconventional given her absence of a background in finance or accounting – but she exceeded expectations. By her mid-thirties, Weckert was running the company’s supermarkets for Victoria – responsible for 200 stores and 20,000 staff.
It will have come as little surprise to those inside Coles that Weckert was chosen after the board had investigated what was on offer internationally, within Australia and internally.
As Graham explained, talent like Weckert is in high demand locally and internationally. The risk Coles faced was ensuring she was not picked off by another company looking to fill a chief executive position.
“I can definitely say I am not burnt out”: outgoing Coles chief Steven Cain.Credit:Joe Armao
Perhaps this played into Steven Cain’s decision to leave a little earlier than the industry had expected after just under five years in the top job. He had been headhunted by Coles from Metcash in 2018.
Cain explained that he was keen to retire from executive management before he turned sixty next year, and that the five years in the job felt more like seven or eight years, given the turmoil of the past few years and the intensity of running a major consumer-focused company.
He will leave the role in May on a high note, with a number of big distribution centre projects now on track and a strong result for the December half under his belt.
Net profit from supermarkets were up more than 10 per cent on the previous corresponding half as many of the elevated COVID costs dissipated, while supermarket sales rose a robust 5.3 per cent and were up more than 7 per cent in the December quarter as customers dealt with price inflation.
‘You’re running an emergency department almost permanently at the same time as you’re carrying out the execution of a strategy.’
“I can definitely say I am not burnt out, but I did promise myself I would be retired by 60, so it’s been a 35-year mission, so to speak,” Cain quipped on Tuesday. He said his tenure as CEO felt more like seven or eight years as he was “running an emergency department almost permanently at the same time as […] carrying out the execution of a strategy.”
“If I look back on the past 10 halves at Coles, there has been only one that I would describe as normal, and nine that have been disrupted,” he said. “[First] it was preparing for demerger, then demerging, then one normal half. Ever since then, there have been bushfires, COVID and floods, so it’s been full on.”
One can’t blame Cain for taking an executive early mark after juggling for years to keep scarce products in stores during supply shortages and keeping the supermarkets and distribution centres manned and the team safe.
“Some of the stuff leads to a bit of adrenaline. I noticed that when you hit a quiet patch and the adrenaline wears off, that you stop and think ‘wow that was a big week’,” Cain said.
It’s been a very challenging time.
In less than three months, it’s Weckert’s turn to take over the job of balancing the demands of dealing with 500,000 shareholders, 20 million customers, 8000 suppliers and 130,000 staff.
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