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Editor's Viewpoint - Is Diageo on the Brink of a Brain Drain?

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Another day, another drinks executive stepping down "to explore new opportunities". Usually, this is code for "is leaving to join one of our competitors in a slightly better-paid position". But, with nowhere to go to yet, Andy Fennell's departure from Diageo is a strange one, especially as he has been held up internally as the 'next big thing'.

Fennell appeared to be a rising star in Diageo

Fennell appeared to be a rising star in Diageo

At the same time as issuing a trading update for the nine months to the end of March yesterday, Diageo confirmed that the president of its Africa operations will quit the company later this year. Fennell, who assumed the position in 2013, is leaving for pastures new, although he doesn't have a new job lined up.

Fennell is held in high esteem at Diageo: Since joining the firm in 1997, he moved up through the ranks on the marketing side, culminating in him becoming chief marketing officer in 2008. In July 2013, he made the move across to commercial, taking hold of the African reins for Diageo.

During his tenure, Africa has become the main motor for growth for Diageo. In yesterday's year-to-date statement, the region posted a stellar performance, delivering a 6.2% rise in year-on-year sales.

His departure has been described to me by one industry observer as "a huge loss" for Diageo. At only 48, and with such a healthy trajectory to his career thus far, it would have been fair to conclude that he was being groomed for more senior positions within the group, possibly even the CEO-ship.

But, with his line manager, Nick Blazquez, an obvious one-company man (he joined the company in 1989) and CEO Ivan Menezes still relatively green in the hotseat, there does not appear to be much in the way of career progression for Fennell to aim for in the medium term. I've been assured, however, that there is no relation between the lack of upward prospects for Fennell within Diageo and his decision to quit the company.

So, why leave Diageo at a time when the region he heads up is proving to be the company's saviour, and when he has time on his side? Maybe he misses the marketing side of things; maybe he's had enough of being a cog in a massive machine. Or, maybe he'll rock up at a tier-two spirits company before the year is out.

Whatever Fennell's reasons, Diageo would do well to make sure that this is not a sign of wider discontent - the last thing the company needs in these challenging times is a talent exodus.


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