John Rishton, the boss of retail giant Ahold, this week reshuffled his management bench amid the company’s continuing quest to overhaul its business in the US. The Netherlands-based group insists its plans to revitalise chains including Stop & SHOP and Giant-Carlisle are on-track but some industry watchers are questioning whether the business can thrive as competition heats up across the Atlantic. Dean Best reports.

With his past experience at British Airways and Ford, John Rishton, the CEO of retail giant Ahold, will know all about well-oiled machines.

Indeed, his appointment as CFO of the Netherlands-based group in 2006 came at a time when some saw Ahold as anything but a smooth-running outfit.

Ahold, the world’s seventh-largest retailer by sales, was still reeling from the 2003 accounting scandal that almost took the company to the brink of bankruptcy.

Questions were also starting to be asked about the viability of the company’s US operations and activist investors began pushing for a sale of its chains across the Atlantic and to focus on its stores in Europe.

Upon joining Ahold, Rishton took part in an internal review of Ahold’s retail businesses, work that paved the way for the decision not to sell up in the US but to revamp its stores across the pond, which include Giant Food and Stop & Shop.

Rishton, a British national, was given the top job on an interim basis last July and was formally appointed CEO four months later. Analysts viewed his appointment as a positive and since then Ahold has pushed on with the overhaul of its US business, watched its domestic business back in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn, continue to perform strongly, and, pleasingly for shareholders, said it would start paying dividends again, five years after that accounting scandal.

However, this week, tellingly, Rishton made his first major management reshuffle since becoming CEO, in a bid to give fresh impetus to Ahold’s turn-around in the US, a market vitally important for the company as it accounts for over half its turnover.

In the US, Ahold is part-way through its “value improvement programme”, moves designed to revamp stores and lower prices. Ahold has insisted at every turn that the programme is on-track but, with the US economy uncertain, consumer confidence weak, and competitors increasingly using price to gain share, questions are being asked over how much traction the retailer is getting with its overhaul.

Ahold has moved to play down the management changes, insisting that the company has a policy of moving executives around its business to share ideas and expertise.

However, some analysts have praised Rishton’s reshuffle, pointing, for instance, at the success Carl Schlicker, set to become president and CEO of Ahold’s largest US business, Stop & Shop/Giant-Landover, has had with the retailer’s smaller chain in the country, Giant-Carlisle.

For its part, Ahold insists Schlicker’s appointment is less to do with his success at Giant-Carlisle and more to do with his skills in marketing and branding, the current area of focus in the “value improvement programme”.

Nevertheless, some industry watchers believe Rishton has a battle on his hands if he wants to truly revitalise Ahold’s US business. David Livingston, a supermarket analyst at DJL Research, says the company is facing an “onslaught” from rival retailers, including Wegmans and Wal-Mart. “Giant is facing an uphill battle,” Livingston says.

One of Rishton’s other directorships is at  Rolls Royce Group. Perhaps then he has what it takes to get Ahold – especially in the US – back firing on all cylinders.