Michael Clarke, who has collected more than £2.7m in his time at the company, is to be replaced by Gavin Darby, the recently ousted boss of Cable & Wireless Worldwide
The boss of Premier Foods, the company behind Hovis bread, Mr Kipling cakes and Bisto gravy, has quit the company after less than 18 months in the job, during which he collected more than £2.7m.
Michael Clarke stunned investors on Monday by announcing he was standing down from the board with “immediate effect”. The news sent the company’s shares tumbling 12%.
Clarke, who joined the company in August 2011, said he was leaving because he is “looking to be CEO of a large corporation”.
“I’ve managed much bigger businesses in the past. I’ve got this business back on its feet – now it’s the time to hand over,” he said.
Clarke said headhunters had approached him with a “number of other opportunities” but he felt it would be inappropriate to discuss other top jobs while he was leading Premier, which is struggling with debts of more than £1bn.
“Now people are aware I’m open to a large opportunity,” he said. “I believe I have the capacity for a large CEO role in the UK or USA.”
He said he had been offered top jobs in different industries and would not restrict himself to jobs in fast-moving consumer goods – having spent most of his career at Coca-Cola and Kraft.
Clarke said he would like a new job “focusing on growth” rather than implementing a turnaround with savage cost-cutting such as he has overseen at Premier. The company has cut more than 1,500 jobs over the past year, and sold many of its best-known brands, including Branston pickle and Sarson’s vinegar.
He refused to comment on rumours that he wanted to leave Premier because he felt his £750,000 salary wasn’t enough. Premier paid him £1.9m on joining the company. A further £1.49m of shares was dependent on him staying until at least 2013. He will still be able to collect about £525,000 worth.
Asked if he regretted joining Premier from Kraft, he said: “It’s been an interesting challenge, and I’ve definitely learnt a lot in the past 18 months. I don’t necessarily want to do a repeat of the last 18 months. Restructuring is not something I want to be a specialist in.”
Clarke said he would start speaking to headhunters about a new job after he returns from holidays snowboarding with his son next week and at a beach with his wife.
He will be replaced by Gavin Darby, until recently the boss of Cable & Wireless Worldwide, who starts in the job on Monday.
David Beever, Premier’s chairman, who was forced to cancel a holiday to Jamaica after speculation over Clarke’s departure leaked on Friday night, said Darby was the “standout candidate” to replace Clarke.
He later conceded Darby was the only person he interviewed for the job.
“I might have said ‘hello’ to someone else, but that was about it because we didn’t get on,” Beever said of the selection process.
Beever said it was “nonsense” to suggest that Clarke had left because of a dispute over pay. He said Clarke’s pay was “perfectly normal for this kind of job, in this kind of environment” and said Darby would not be paid more than Clarke.
Darby promised to “invest a significant personal sum” in Premier’s shares – which fell nearly 12% to 105p – with the company matching the size of his investment.
Darby, who said his favourite Premier brand was Sharwood’s Indian and Chinese sauces, has been ousted from two previous jobs, both times by Vodafone.
He left the mobile phone giant in 2010 after a bust-up with chief executive Vittorio Colao. After he went on to become chief executive of Cable & Wireless Worldwide, he was then not kept on by Vodafone when it took over CWW last summer.
Martin Deboo, an analyst at Investec, said: “We see the surprise change of leadership as unhelpful to Premier’s stability and organic growth prospects. With its financial restructuring complete, we think that consistency and longevity of leadership was going to be critical to its prosperity.”