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Forty-eight hours after Tesco CEO Philip Clarke signalled the UK retailer was likely to quit the US (a move broadly welcomed in the City), a former colleague central to the venture provided a rare glimpse into the personal effect such decisions can have.
"On my way to Cheshunt as an ex-employee," Tim Mason, a Tesco executive of 30 years, wrote on Twitter on Friday afternoon. Mason, who helped lead the retailer's move into the US and became CEO of its Fresh & Easy chain in the market, said a former colleague had "cried" the last time they drove down the road on which Tesco HQ resides. "We will see," Mason, who was also Tesco's chief marketing officer and deputy CEO, added.
News of Mason's exit from Tesco came on Wednesday as the UK's largest retailer announced a "strategic review" of its Fresh & Easy business.
Clarke said Tesco had done "all it could" for Fresh & Easy, which despite hundreds of millions of pounds of investment, has still yet to make a profit. The Tesco boss said the retailer was "considering all options" for the chain, including teaming up with a "partner" to "develop" the business. However, he admitted Tesco was likely to quit the US five years after it opened its first Fresh & Easy store.
In a statement to accompany the announcement of the review, Clarke pointed to the impact the financial crisis had on the West Coast, where Tesco has targeted Fresh & Easy. Speaking to reporters hours later, he refused to be drawn on the specific reasons why the chain had not met expectations.
However, Clarke did reveal he decided Mason should leave the business. "I didn't think it was appropriate for Tim to lead the review. I wanted a fresh pair of eyes to lead the process."
Mason is the latest senior Tesco executive to leave the retailer. Among those who have moved on include Richard Brasher, the former head of the company's UK business, who quit in March after Clarke wanted to "take a much closer involvement" in its under-performing domestic operations.
On Wednesday, Clarke indicated he believed Tesco was seeing the benefits of its massive GBP1bn (US$1.6bn) investment programme to revitalise its UK business. He said he was "really pleased" with the performance of its UK food business. "Although it's still early days, the offer is improving and the consumer is starting to respond," he said.
Tesco's third-quarter underlying sales in the UK were down 0.6%. In the first half of the retailer's financial year, they were down 0.7%. That said, the latest data from Kantar Worldpanel showed Tesco's share of the UK grocery market was lower year-on-year in the 12 weeks to 25 November. Elsewhere, Tesco is facing challenges in non-food.
It is Tesco's UK performance that, in large part, explains why it has decided to consider quitting the US. If Tesco's UK business was thriving and seeing off the competition, perhaps Clarke may have persevered for a bit longer with Fresh & Easy. But Tesco still faces a battle in the UK and ultimately Clarke has decided the time is likely to be up for the retailer's American venture.
On Friday evening, Mason took to Twitter again. "Happy to report no tears. Great to see a few people. Onwards and upwards, fight on."
A sentiment Mason and his former boss will no doubt share as one of Tesco's more challenging chapters draws to a close.
Until next time...