Iverson marks the return of the ‘feminine’ touch

Ann Iverson was tipped last year to take up the helm at Laura Ashley. It seemed just the sort of challenge she would rise to – a high-profile brand with great intrinsic qualities, but one going through problems and in need of a new direction.

Instead, Iverson, 51, left her position as chief executive of the Mothercare chain where she had worked for three years, and headed back to her native US to become chief executive of the Kay-Bee Toys chain.

It has taken more than a year for Laura Ashley to lure her back to the UK after its search for a replacement for chief executive Jim Maxmin, who left in 1994.

Observers say there was no long queue of obvious candidates for the chief executive’s job at Laura Ashley. And looking at the task facing Iverson, you can see why.

Iverson’s qualities sound like a list in a job advertisement: determined, hard working and brimming with ideas. She has a great understanding of what motivates consumers. She loves a challenge.

She will bring a feminine touch to a brand that has been in the hands of men ever since Laura Ashley herself died in an accident in 1985.

She has also been described as steely and calculated, hard-nosed and hard-driven.

But observers wonder whether Laura Ashley could be a challenge too far and blemish Iverson’s previous record of success.

As one analyst says: “She put Mothercare on the path to recovery. She is conceptually very good, and is strong at looking at an environment and laying down a vision that will appeal to


But positioning is only part of the brand’s problems. The operational side is where she will need to surround herself with the right people. “She has not yet built her name as a great technician,” one observer says.

Iverson is a highly experienced retailer. She gave up her studies at Arizona University to take up a job in Bullock’s department store in Los Angeles in 1966. By 1984 she had joined Bloomingdale’s department store group as vice-president of two main branches.

She soon came to the attention of David Dworkin, then chief executive of Bonwitt, another department store group. Dworkin recruited her as vice president, and later invited her to join him when he became chief executive of Storehouse in the UK.

When she came to the UK, she was swim ming with the tide. She joined a group of elite US retailers who crossed the Atlantic in the early Nineties to take up senior positions in UK retail


By the mid-Nineties, the Americans began to drift back – Dworkin left Storehouse and Laura Ashley’s own chief executive Jim Maxmin also headed back to the US.

Iverson also left Storehouse to become chief executive of Kay Bee Toys, saying the move was partly to allow her to spend more time with her family.

It was assumed she had also been lured back to the US by a large salary. To get her back to the UK, Laura Ashley has presumably had to offer her a huge financial incentive.

But the company also offers a hard-driven personality like Iverson the tough conditions in which she thrives.

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