Gordon Cairns to exit as Woolies chair after seven years

Retail giant Woolworths will see a changing of the guard in October as long-serving chair Gordon Cairns steps down after seven years guiding the business through a major turnaround project and a pandemic.

Woolworths told investors on Tuesday morning that Cairns, who was appointed as chairman in September 2015, would exit the role after the Woolworths annual general meeting in October, to be replaced by non-executive director Scott Perkins.

Gordon Cairns told investors at the 2021 AGM that he did not intend to serve out his full term as chair. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer.

Cairns had signalled at the 2021 AGM that he did not intend to serve out his full term as chair and would instead hand over the reins once a suitable replacement was found.

“I am proud of the work that the team and directors have achieved together in transforming Woolworths Group and delivering for our shareholders,” he said in a statement on Tuesday morning.

It’s been an eventful seven-year tenure for Cairns, who stepped into the role when the Woolworths share price was sitting at $26.40 and the supermarket giant was struggling. The stock closed at $37.46 on Monday, a gain of 41.9 per cent since 2015.

The company then embarked on a transformation project that included adding more women to its board and making the tough decision to exit its Masters home improvement business. Less than a year after Cairns took the chair seat, Woolworths was outlining plans to shutter the troubled foray into DIY projects.

Under Cairns’ leadership the Woolworths board also brought on former Woolworths liquor boss Brad Banducci as chief executive of the Woolworths Group.

He was also helming the board as Woolworths became embroiled in one of the largest underpayment scandals in Australia’s history, which has now blown out to a wages bill of more than $500 million.

In 2019, Cairns and Banducci said they had let many of the company’s salaried team members down, and Cairns took a 20 per cent reduction in his board fees for the year because he “took a higher level of responsibility than board colleagues” for the underpayments.

The last two years of Cairns’ tenure has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, which thrust Woolworths into the spotlight as an essential service.

Perkins will replace Cairns as chair having served eight years on the Woolworths board. The seasoned company director has been chairman of Origin Energy since 2020 and of Brambles since 2015.

Cairns said on Tuesday that the company was lucky to have someone of Perkins’ character to “provide the oversight required to allow the business to reach its full potential.”

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