Considered by some observers to be the UK’s best marketer, Tim Mason is set to pioneer Tesco’s foray into the US, with many seeing the move as a test of whether he has the clout to eventually step into chief executive Sir Terry Leahy’s shoes.
As chief executive of the US operation, Mason is likely to spend the next few years chipping away at the West Coast market in an attempt to carve out a solid base for the retail giant. Despite assertions last year that it would continue to shun the US, Tesco is set to target the convenience market with a chain based on its Express format.
But it will not be easy. Director of marketing for the North East and North Atlantic region at leading US organic retailer Whole Foods Market Mara Fleishman warns: “The UK is a sophisticated food retailing community, but the US is very competitive and consumers have a lot to choose from.”
More optimistically, senior economic analyst at grocery industry think-tank IGD James Walton adds: “By entering the convenience sector rather than supermarkets, Tesco will avoid direct competition with powerful domestic and international rivals, allowing it to flex its muscles against convenience specialists.”
Former colleagues of Mason believe he is the right man to take on the US, where UK retailers as big as Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s have come to grief.
Joint managing director of agency DNX Drew Nicholson, who worked alongside Mason and Leahy in the Tesco marketing department in the late 1980s, comments: “Tim had a really good handle on who the Tesco shopper was, at a time when the company was redefining itself. He’s a perfect choice to run the US venture and will understand the way forward.”
Another observer close to Tesco adds: “Most people will tell you Mason’s probably the UK’s best marketer. He’s one of the few people responsible for Tesco being the success story it is today. Who else would it put in charge of the US?”
According to reports, trading director Richard Brasher, who joined Tesco in 1986, is poised to take the UK marketing reins from Mason. An outside possibility is director of Tesco Clubcard Andrew Mann.
Tesco will only say it is due to make an announcement “in due course” about how Mason’s responsibilities, which also included property, Ireland and marketing, would be “split up”. Mason will retain a seat on the main board. A spokeswoman says: “His marketing capabilities will remain within the business but it’s not clear yet who will take that on.”
She adds it is “too early to say” whether the next UK marketing chief will review the relationship with The Red Brick Road, Sir Frank Lowe’s start-up, which seized the &£45m Tesco advertising account from Lowe London in December.
Maintaining Tesco’s massive lead in the UK grocery market will be a tough task for Mason’s successor. A source says: “A lot of eyes will be watching how this pans out. Tim’s a legend and there’s got to be a risk involved in him cutting ties with the UK.”
As for Mason’s future, another observer quips: “He’s a hard act to follow. Get the US right and the world’s his Clubcard.”