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Carrefour picks retail veteran for turnaround bid

Carrefour, the world’s second-biggest retailer behind U.S. group Wal-Mart, has been struggling for years, partly due to its reliance on hypermarkets, which have been losing out as time-pressed shoppers buy more goods locally and online.

CHRISTOPHE ENA/CHRISTOPHE ENA/AP

Carrefour SA, Europe's largest retailer, has picked industry veteran Georges Plassat as its next boss, a signal that key shareholders may back another attempt to fix its ailing hypermarkets rather than push for a breakup.

Mr. Plassat, the 62-year-old head of private-equity-backed retailer Vivarte, will replace Lars Olofsson, who faced mounting criticism over a series of profit warnings that hammered the French group's shares over the past year.

The main "shareholders have been hesitating between restructuring the group or breaking it up. Plassat is the man of a restructuring," said one analyst who declined to be named, referring to Carrefour's top investors – French tycoon Bernard Arnault and U.S. private equity firm Colony Capital.

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Speculation has long swirled that Mr. Olofsson's departure could herald the breakup of Carrefour, with the possible sale of its faster-growing emerging-market businesses.

Carrefour also said emerging-markets head and former finance chief Pierre Bouchut, who had been seen by analysts as a strong candidate to replace Mr. Olofsson, was leaving the group.

"Carrefour has lost the confidence of its managers, staff, suppliers and shareholders. Appointing a respected retailer at its helm polishes up the image of the board, which some critics have accused of conducting a short-term financial strategy," CM-CIC analyst Christian Devismes said.

Carrefour, the world's second-biggest retailer behind U.S. group Wal-Mart, has been struggling for years, partly due to its reliance on hypermarkets, which have been losing out as time-pressed shoppers buy more goods locally and online, and prefer to purchase general merchandise from specialist stores.

Mr. Olofsson's main response was Carrefour Planet, a costly revamp of the stores that has so far not yielded the necessary results and is likely to be scaled down in March amid a worsening economic climate.

A new chief executive officer might pursue an alternative strategy for the hypermarkets, like downsizing them, slashing prices to lure back cash-strapped shoppers who think that Carrefour products are too expensive and investing more in e-commerce, analysts said.

Mr. Plassat, who will join Carrefour on April 2 as chief operating officer before becoming CEO at a shareholder meeting on June 18, spent 14 years at French retailer Casino and two years at Carrefour Spain before joining Vivarte in 2000. He holds a stake of about 10 per cent in Vivarte.

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Analysts said his depth of experience in both France and general merchandise could help address Carrefour's key problems, in contrast to Mr. Olofsson, who came to the company from a career largely in marketing at Swiss food giant Nestlé SA.

"The appointment of Plassat should be viewed as a big win for Carrefour," said Natalie Berg, director of global research at Planet Retail. "He is a seasoned retail executive with the non-food experience that Carrefour vitally needs."

However, she said Mr. Plassat faces an uphill struggle in a world where giant stores are out of fashion and you need to give shoppers a good reason to make that out-of-town trip.

"Carrefour's business model is inherently flawed given its overdependence on a dated format and slow-growth markets and a simple change at the helm will not be enough to save the company," she said, predicting Mr. Plassat would "pull the plug" at least temporarily on the costly Carrefour Planet hypermarket.

Carrefour shares, which rose last week on talk of Mr. Plassat's appointment, fell 4.1 per cent to €17.515 ($23.08) to be little changed this year.

"We think a 'hope rally' could be some time off. In the meantime, the fundamental issues around underperformance, aggressive competition and weak macro have not changed," said Espirito Santo analysts

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The board of Carrefour, which has annual sales of over €90 billion and 470,000 employees in 32 countries, will also consider Mr. Plassat's nomination as chairman after the June 18 shareholder meeting. Mr. Olofsson was both chairman and CEO.

"Georges Plassat declared he is well aware of the magnitude of the task ahead, which will require the support of all within the company," Carrefour said in a statement.

Mr. Olofsson's tenure was marred by a string of poor trading results, management defections and strategic U-turns including a failed merger in Brazil, as well as doubts over his flagship plan to revive Carrefour's ailing hypermarkets.

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