The Financial Week Ahead – Keen grip on success.

David Keens, group finance director of Next, is a rare commodity on the high street these days. A retail FD who is presiding over a sales success story. Under Keens, the £2.5bn stores group has undertaken a massive restructuring. In 1998, the store was underperforming overseas, while at home new ranges were failing to sell well. Too trendy, said the critics. Today, however, having rethought its stocks and relinquished itself of several lacklustre overseas stores, Next tells a very different story. The first day of the Christmas sales now sees hundreds, sometimes thousands, queuing outside Next stores – something many of its competitors would give their best brand names for. In these tough times, that is a good performance. Market researchers, like Verdict, say the UK clothing retail market will have to get used to deflation and low growth, as consumers continue to expect more for less. Marks & Spencer’s present problems really only serve to highlight difficulties felt by the whole sector. But Next, which is based in Leicester and has about 330 stores in the UK and Ireland, is picking up market share in both the men’s and women’s market. Among investors, the group is one of the sector’s most popular stocks. Last year saw the company launch online and TV-based interactive ordering. The strong financial grip that Next directors have on the company has helped drive this success. Keens is a certified accountant while chief executive David Jones is also ACCA qualified. For the first half of 1999, Next posted an 18% rise in turnover while earnings per share were up by 35%. More recently, sales were up an impressive 18% over Christmas. The City will no doubt be hoping the company can also show impressive growth when it announces its full-year pre-tax profits next week.

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