Rare find in the rag trade: a woman in the boardroom

Sydney Morning Herald
30 December, 2009

SOPHIE HOLT joins the board of Country Road on Friday, joining a handful of women directors among big fashion retailers.

The 43-year-old granddaughter of the late prime minister Harold Holt has been a key player in turning around the retailer's fortunes over the past four years. But her promotion is unusual in an industry where the barriers for women advancing to senior positions are greater than almost any other.

A study of the ASX top 200 companies last year showed 2 per cent of retail chief executives were women. Among the top 200 retailers, women made up 8 per cent of the total number of board members.

Country Road has previously appointed two women to non-executive board positions - Annamaria Hynes and Penny Morris, who respectively left the board in 2006 and 2003.

Ms Holt has been general manager of product design and development for six years, having joined from the rival Witchery.

She is expected to retain her day-to-day job.

The mother of three was credited for her role in helping turn around the retailer from near oblivion five years ago. She also launched a sister brand, Trenery, targeted at women aged over 40.

Country Road had sales of $343 million last financial year in 60 stand-alone stores and 80 department store concessions nationally. It is majority owned by Woolworths Holdings of South Africa, which is not related to Australia's Woolworths.

Ms Holt's pay package last financial year was worth $2 million, including $1.3 million in incentives to stay with the company and a $264,000 bonus.

This month the Australian Securities Exchange's corporate governance council proposed a range of changes and reporting requirements aimed at increasing the number of women in senior ranks and on boards of listed companies.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors has also backed moves to increase numbers of women directors.

The lack of women in senior roles in the $290 billion retail industry and on the boards of the nation's biggest retailers contrasts with the dominance of women in its workforce and their spending power.

Among retailers - including smaller companies such as Country Road - 5 per cent of chief executives are women. In other industries the average is 10 per cent, according to the federal Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency.

The few women in corporate Australia who sit on boards and also have executive jobs with the company include: Gail Kelly, who heads Westpac; Katie Page, who heads Harvey Norman; Nicole Hollows, the chief executive of Macarthur Coal; and Kerrie Mather, who runs MAP, the majority owner of Sydney Airport.

Other women directors of top-200 companies who do not have day-to-day roles include: Diane Grady and Alison Watkins at Woolworths; Katie Lahey at David Jones; and the former CSR chief executive Anne Brennan at Myer.

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