It has only taken 100 years, but a woman will finally lead one of Australia’s big supermarket chains with Coles Group Limited recently announcing that Leah Weckert would take the reigns as Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer from 1 May 2023.
The appointment is just the latest step in Ms Weckert’s meteoric rise that started in 2011 and will see her manage a business with more than 130,000 employees and nearly $40 billion in annual revenues.
Since first joining the retailer she has held the positions of Chief Executive, Commercial and Express; Chief Financial Officer; People and Culture Director; and, State General Manager, Victorian Supermarkets, as well as being a senior member of the Executive Leadership Team since the demerger of Coles from the Wesfarmers Group in 2018.
She holds degrees in Engineering and Science from Adelaide University and a Master of Business Administration from Harvard University (2008). Prior to joining Coles she held senior roles at McKinsey & Company and Foster’s Group.
The Chairman of Coles, James Graham, said: “Leah has an outstanding track record of leadership and driving change inside Coles across key operating areas of the business. I am confident that Leah will maintain the focus of Coles in driving our strategy, building trust with all stakeholders and growing long-term shareholder value.
“Leah has personal and professional qualities which together with broad business experience uniquely qualify her for the role as our next Chief Executive.
Ms Weckert said she was honoured to be appointed as the next CEO of Coles, which has been such an important part of Australian retailing for more than 100 years.
“We have a transformational strategy that, through the hard work of our 130,000 team members, will deliver better experiences for customers and create value for shareholders. I am excited by the many opportunities and look forward to bringing them to fruition over the years ahead.”
Speaking to her alma mater Harvard University at the start of the pandemic, Leah listed some of the challenges she had faced as an executive at Coles, including dealing with the country’s bushfire crisis and the country’s notorious run on toilet paper.
As the Coles Group CFO in 2018, she was central to the business’ demerger — the largest in the country’s history — from corporate parent Wesfarmers which established Coles as an independent company listed on the ASX.
“For a couple of years, it felt like we were building everything from scratch,” she said.
As the demerger was completed she said she finally felt like the biggest challenges were behind the company and she was looking forward to some stability.
Her confidence was a bit premature as the country was buffeted first by an unprecedented bushfire season that burned 46 million acres and then by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Both of these things had an enormous impact for our businesses, but also for the communities we live in,” she said. “But now it has evolved into a real moment of pride for us. We are an essential service and that has changed the way that customers interact with our team and how our team members view themselves.”
The events of 2020 meant putting aside financial concerns temporarily and focusing on community needs. During the fires, that meant shuttling food and workers to affected areas to restock shelves and give taxed local staff needed time off.
In the early days of the pandemic, it meant doing whatever could be done to stock toilet paper. Leah estimates that in one week, the company sold three rolls for every Australian man, woman, and child.
One of the major learnings of the bushfires and pandemics was to normalise different types of normal.
“When I came on the executive leadership committee, it was not normal for someone to say ‘Can we start the meeting at nine o’clock, because I want to drop the kids at school?’ I have worked to normalise that and to build a culture where people are transparent and authentic about their choices.”
She also believes strongly in mentoring future leaders.
“You need to get the right people in at the more junior levels and put great structures around them for sponsorship,” she observes. Sponsorship is more than mentorship for Weckert. “A sponsor is someone who helps you unlock opportunities, who is proactively helping you to manage your career.”