Will Woolworths Limited Dump Big W?

Credit: Woolworths

Woolworths Limited (ASX: WOW) may finally look to sell its Big W business after the sudden resignation of its CEO, Sally Macdonald, who spent less than a year in the job.

Big W has burdened Woolworths and its shareholders for some time now. Revenue from the business fell 2.8% during the 2016 financial year (FY16), with comparable sales down 3.3%, while it recorded a loss (before interest and taxes) of $14.9 million.

Disappointingly, the business’s performance continued to wane during the 14-week period ended 2 October 2016. Comparable sales declined another 5.7% compared to the previous corresponding period, in part due to clearance activities and softness in demand for apparel.

Management also said they did not anticipate an improvement in earnings this year compared to FY16.

In an announcement to the market on Wednesday, Woolworths said Macdonald had resigned from her role leading the business:

“Since joining BIG W in January 2016, Sally has made material progress in restructuring the business, especially in the areas of direct sourcing, product development, supply chain, business simplification and cost reduction. However, despite these and other positive changes, it is apparent that the transformation of BIG W will take three to five years to complete and, unfortunately, this time horizon is inconsistent with Sally’s expectation when she joined BIG W.”

Admittedly, it is a little hard to believe Macdonald didn’t expect a turnaround of the business to take that long, given the state in which she found it when she first joined in January.

While Big W is struggling to remain relevant, Woolworths has plenty of other issues it needs to consider.

It is currently in the process of exiting the Home Improvement market, essentially admitting defeat to the Wesfarmers Ltd (ASX: WES) owned Bunnings Warehouse business, while it is desperately trying to regain ground in the grocery market.

Coles has increased its own market share in recent years, but the pair are also competing aggressively with the likes of Aldi and Costco. Woolworths has been forced to cut costs and reduce prices throughout its supermarkets, which appear to finally be showing signs of improvement.

In order to increase its focus on the supermarkets space, Woolworths could be expected to cut ties with Big W. That may require cutting the book value of the business in order to sell it to another party, which could well impact the group’s overall earnings results in the upcoming periods.

Woolworths’ shares have performed terribly for investors over the past two-and-a-half years or so. After fetching nearly $39 a share early in 2014, they have since traded as low as $20.30, although they have rebounded to $23.24 today.

While there have been signs of improvement, I would personally wait to see a continued positive trend before committing to buying the shares. It could be a long road back for Woolworths, and holding onto Big W could hinder any progress even further.

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Motley Fool contributor Ryan Newman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

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