OPINION: News Analysis - All change at Kingfisher or plus la meme chose? - The return of John Eyre to the communications hotseat at Kingfisher marks yet another twist in the PR strategy of the retail giant

In that grand tribute to life in the retail world Are You Being Served? no-one ever seemed to leave. But the staff at Grace Brothers led a cosseted life by retail standards, that is if judged by the frequency with which the Kingfisher head of communications post changes occupant.

In that grand tribute to life in the retail world Are You Being Served? no-one ever seemed to leave. But the staff at Grace Brothers led a cosseted life by retail standards, that is if judged by the frequency with which the Kingfisher head of communications post changes occupant.

Promoting the virtues of household names such as Woolworths, B&Q, Comet and Superdrug has, it seems, had some of the UK's leading PROs reaching for a Superdrug own-brand aspirin. The job has changed hands on an almost annual basis since director of corporate affairs Nigel Whittaker left in 1995.

Whittaker's departure created a vacancy eventually filled by John Eyre.

Last week Eyre, who took early retirement two years ago, defied the convention which states 'never go back', and settled himself down for a second stint in the post.

The seat had been kept warm for him, first by agency veteran Mike Hingston, who had advised Kingfisher CEO Geoff Mulcahy on the Eyre appointment, and then by Gwen Gober, whose abrupt recent resignation brought about Eyre's return from the golf course.

Rather than being a revolving door, Kingfisher seems to be more of a merry-go-round which stops to let people dismount and get back on again as the mood takes them. Nobody seems to be put off by their first experience at the company.

Hingston did consultancy work for Kingfisher long before joining the staff, which included helping with the Woolworths rescue in the early 1980s. Eyre has returned within two years, while Gober had spent six years from 1985 onwards as the company's head of communications, reporting to Whittaker.

A key to the high turnover rate may be that Whittaker's departure robbed PR of input at board level. During his 13-year stint as director of corporate affairs he was on the board and at one point chairman of B&Q.

Insiders suggest that the turnover stems from Mulcahy's style of management. 'He likes to have people he knows but it is a merry-go-round. It is a very complicated process with him,' says one source who has worked extensively with the firm.

Mulcahy's alleged preference for deciding a strategy by 'talking issues through' can complicate the business of presenting a coherent message And if the message is, in the opinion of the CEO, not crystal clear, the communications chief can be edged out of the inner sanctum, prompting resignation.

One source says: 'It is not an illogical way of working - developing a strategy and the communications message at the same time - but it's tough on the communicators.'

Mulcahy seems to build strong relationships, and likes working with those he knows well. Eyre and Whittaker both held senior positions with the CEO at British Sugar before the founding of Kingfisher in 1982. Hingston provided agency assistance throughout most of the 1980s and became closer to Mulcahy through their shared love of sailing.

There are also aberrations that explain the top-level staff churn. Hingston's departure is widely thought to have followed a rift with investor relations director Tom Wyatt, who at the time was reporting to Hingston following a reorganisation which merged IR and communications.

Hingston is seen as one of the stars of 1980s PR, founding Paragon Communications in 1981. Known within the industry for holding strong views and his willingness to express them, there were those who doubted from day one that he would relish for long a job where he was not calling the shots.

'A person who is consultancy in his background, culture and ethos, can find being in a staff job a different kettle of fish,' says one observer.

The end of Hingston's tenure also came shortly after Kingfisher's abortive bid for Asda. Just as Kingfisher seemed set to claim the prize, in swooped American retail behemoth Wal-Mart.

Publicity for the proposed deal was the responsibility of its financial agency, Finsbury, but losing the prize in such dramatic fashion affected morale within Kingfisher.

Those who watched from the outside insist there was nothing wrong with the PR strategy and stress that the company simply lost out to a higher offer. But it sent the share price into a tailspin, with the company losing half its value in a matter of months.

At this point Gober jumped back on the Kingfisher merry-go-round from Littlewoods, first on a consultancy basis and then full-time in September last year. During her 14 months tenure, she sought to rebuild the corporate communications team before leaving this month without explanation.

As for the future, 60-year-old Eyre insists he is back at the company for 'a few years' but rules out the idea of his hanging on until the official retirement age. He denies any special survival skills are needed.

'There is no great mystery about my resignation,' Eyre said. 'I took early retirement which seemed an attractive proposition at the time. Having sampled it, I found I was missing the challenge of this work, the adrenaline flow of it. I had kept my hand in by helping out with the launch of the preliminary results last year so when Mulcahy invited me back I was very keen.'

It seems that just like Mr Humphreys in Are You Being Served?, when Mulcahy asks if you can fill the top PR job at Kingfisher, the reply is always, 'I'm free.'



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