Who is new Very Group CEO Lionel Desclée?

Retail Gazette takes a closer look at new Very Group CEO Lionel Desclée and what he brings to the online retail group.

Very Group
Lionel Desclée worked as president and CEO of Walmart’s Japanese business Seiyu for 3 years

The Very Group revealed it had hired former Walmart Japan CEO Lionel Desclée as its new boss yesterday after Henry Birch decided to step down after four and a half years at the online retailer.

Desclée is an interesting choice for The Very Group. The Belgian comes with a wealth of experience across international retail.

Most recently he led the Walmart-owned Japanese chain of supermarkets Seiyu.

Seiyu generates around $7 billion in annual revenue across 330 physical stores and ecommerce platforms.

Desclée led Seiyu’s rapid transformation in his two and a half years at the helm. In his first year in charge, like-for-likes store sales jumped 180 basis points faster than the market and EBITDA increased by nearly 40%.

However, he is no stranger to the world of online that he is about to step into with Very. Seiyu also has an online grocery business that it jointly operates with Japanese giant Rakuten. Sales surged during Desclée’s time at Seiyu, with gross merchandise value jumping nearly 40% between 2019 and 2020.

Desclée also has strategic nous and has been working part-time as a senior adviser at strategy consultant McKinsey since he left Walmart last year.

Strategy consultants have worked well for The Very Group in the past with former chief executive Alex Baldock, who spearheaded the transformation of the group into an online leader, coming from this world.

READ MORE: Very Group hires former Walmart executive as new CEO

Prior to Desclée’s time at Walmart Japan, he spent more than a decade at Dutch retail giant Ahold Delhaize where he undertook a variety of roles from co-creating its discount fascia Red Market, to running its petcare business Tom & Co, and leading its Belgian grocery stores.

A dealmaker who can plot the Barclays exit

There’s no doubt that Desclée has a wealth of experience but his strength in international and grocery and FMCG are add odds with The Very Group’s UK-focused, department store offer.

Perhaps the big appeal to The Very Group owners, Ritz and The Telegraph owners the Barclay family, who have owned the retail group for almost 20 years and have long been attempting to exit the business via IPO or sale.

The Barclays most recent exit attempt, a potential £4bn IPO, was scrapped last year amid a volatile market. However, the family are understood to have revived the plans earlier this year.

Desclée’s experience in deal-making could well be what clinched him the top job.

During his time at Walmart he led a partial exit, helping the retail giant sell an 85% stake in Seiyu to KKR and Rakuten. He also led a leveraged management buyout of pet care retailer Tom & Co from Ahold Delhaize.

He became president and CEO of the ominchannel retailer, which operates 170 stores across Belgium, France and Luxembourg, following the management buyout in 2016 and still sits on its board.

Desclée’s experience of multiple business exits will have shone in his CV as new employer the Barclays attempt an exit during an uncertain market that only last week saw Walgreens ditch its sale of Boots.

Desclée will need to utilise all of his knowhow if he is to finally get the Barclays the exit they’ve been looking for.


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