By Mike Cherney

SYDNEY--Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci's exit has been in the works for months and isn't related to recent controversies over prices, politics and increased public scrutiny of the Australian grocer, Chair Scott Perkins told reporters after the company's half-year earnings.

Banducci will retire in September after 13 years at the company and eight and a half years in the chief executive role. He is being replaced by Amanda Bardwell, who leads the company's digital arm, WooliesX.

Perkins said the process has been underway for a while, with the board focusing more intently on succession planning in the middle of last year. Potential candidates were interviewed in the back half of last year, with interviews continuing this year, he said.

"The timeline has been completely unaffected by external events of the last couple of weeks," Perkins said. "I can be absolutely emphatic on that point," he added later. "This process has been in train. There was no change to the timetable, no expedition at all."

Woolworths dominates the grocery sector in Australia along with rival Coles and is one of the country's most ubiquitous retailers. Amid concerns about inflation and increased costs of living, the government recently directed Australia's competition watchdog to launch an inquiry into supermarket prices and allegations of price gouging. Banducci in recent days walked out of a television interview while being questioned about the competitiveness of the sector, though he returned moments later.

Last month, the leader of Australia's conservative opposition lambasted the grocer and called for a boycott after Woolworths decided not to carry merchandise related to Australia Day, a controversial public holiday that many say is painful for the country's indigenous people. Woolworths at the time said there was low customer interest in the products.

On the call with reporters, Banducci said he considered delaying his departure and that the board was flexible, but that it "wouldn't have been authentic." He said he's the third longest-serving CEO in the company's 100-year history.

"I felt, we have a plan, and the best thing was to stick to the plan," he said.

When asked about prices on the call, executives pointed out that much of the company's growth came from WooliesX and e-commerce, which they said reflected years of investment coming to fruition.

Woolworths reported a large statutory loss for the half year ended in December because of a write down in its New Zealand business and a loss recognized on its investment in the Endeavour drinks and hotel company, which it spun out in recent years. Stripping out those items, profit rose 2.5% to 929 million Australian dollars (US$608.4 million) in the half.

But analysts are concerned about the near-term outlook, given that Woolworths also flagged a slowdown in sales growth in recent weeks due to reduced inflation and more cautious consumers. Some analysts added that they were surprised by Banducci's departure, and believed that it would contribute to the market's negative reaction to the earnings result.

Woolworths share were down nearly 8% in recent trading at A$33.03.

Write to Mike Cherney at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

02-20-24 2004ET