Tesco: Did 'Drastic Dave' save the UK's biggest retailer?

Dave Lewis Image copyright PA
Image caption Dave Lewis's launch of Tesco's discount chain Jack's has had mixed reviews

When Dave Lewis moved into the hot seat at Tesco it was very hot indeed.

His first act as chief executive was to announce the company had overstated its historical profits by £326m.

That led to a fine for the company of £129m and compensation for investors of £85m. He followed that up the following spring by announcing a £6.4bn loss as Tesco got real about the value of its property in an age of growing on-line commerce and a brutal price war against discounters.

That is a classic tactic for an incoming CEO to a troubled company. Take the "big bath" - clear the decks, place the problems of the past firmly in the hands of your predecessors and move on. There is only one direction you can go after the biggest loss in UK retail history.

But there was a lot of work still to do and Dave Lewis is almost universally regarded as having done it extremely well. It was not without pain. "Drastic Dave" cut thousands of jobs in order to cut Tesco's costs by £1.5bn in order to compete more effectively with the likes of Aldi and Lidl who were gobbling up market share.

Tesco's international businesses were slimmed down - or in the case of its US venture Fresh & Easy - shut down completely. His back to basics approach on food retail was coupled with expanding its on-line grocery business.

But perhaps the most important thing he did was to buy the wholesaler Booker for £3.7bn. At a stroke, this gave Tesco a whole new business supplying buyers like hotels, restaurants and corner shops.

A few eyebrows were raised when the competition authorities waved the deal through as it created a company worth more at the time than Sainsbury's Morrisons, Marks and Spencer and Ocado put together.

Image copyright Reuters

It was arguably the approval of that deal that saw Sainsbury's believe they could persuade the same authorities that their merger with Asda could go ahead. They were wrong - and very sore about it.

Grown flabby

Get in at the bottom - get out at the top. It's a manoeuvre that very few bosses an any walk of life manage to pull off. Not many get to choose the timing or the manner of their leaving.

It hasn't been a spotless record. His foray into discounting - the experimental Jack's chain - has not worked. And that most important metric of all for CEOs - the share price - is not much higher than it was when he took over. But this is as much to do with the new harsh realities of the grocery business - Morrisons shares have fared similarly and Sainsbury's much worse.

Did Dave Lewis save Tesco? When he arrived, Tesco's brand looked badly damaged, its business had grown flabby and its accounts were being manipulated to flatter its bottom line.

He inherited a dominant market position and its market share has fallen from 29% to 27%. That is not much given the rise of the discounters.

It's impossible to know whether someone else would have done as good or a better job. But it's fair to say that when he decides what he wants to do next he will not be short of offers.

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