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Diageo appoints Debra Crew as its first female chief executive

The world’s biggest spirits maker, Diageo, has appointed Debra Crew as chief executive, one of few women to lead a FTSE 100 company.

The company, which makes well-known brands including Johnnie Walker scotch whisky, Guinness and Baileys, announced that Sir Ivan Menezes would step down on 30 June after 10 years as chief executive. It decided to promote Crew from chief operating officer to the top job, effective from 1 July.

Diageo employs 28,000 people globally and sells more than 200 brands in more than 180 markets. It is the biggest company by net sales value in scotch and Canadian whisky, vodka, gin, rum, liquors and tequila.

Only eight of the UK’s top 100 listed companies have a female chief executive. They are Dame Alison Rose at NatWest, Amanda Blanc at Aviva, Dame Emma Walmsley at GSK, Jette Nygaard-Andersen at Entain, Liv Garfield at Severn Trent, Jennie Daly at Taylor Wimpey, Margherita Della Valle at Vodafone – who is interim chief executive – and Milena Mondini de Focatiis at Admiral.

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Before being appointed chief operating officer in October 2022, Crew ran Diageo’s business in North America, its largest market. She joined the company in 2019 and previously headed the tobacco firm Reynolds American until it was acquired by BAT. Before that, she spent five years at PepsiCo and worked at Kraft Foods, Nestlé and Mars.

Also joining the ranks of FTSE 100 executives, Louise Beardmore is about to take the helm at United Utilities, the UK’s largest listed water company.

Alison Brittain, who led the Premier Inn owner Whitbread for seven years, has recently been replaced by Dominic Paul, who joined from Domino’s Pizza Group.

Fiona Hathorn, chief executive and co-founder of the campaign group Women on Boards UK, said: “It is terrific to see women who have international experience, in a range of different companies and industries, getting to the top. For the third year in a row, Diageo has been named as the top company for female representation at board level within the FTSE women leaders review, with 63.6%.

“However, the bigger picture is as desolate as ever. Approximately 96% of CEOs in the FTSE-350 are men, which needs to be urgently addressed. Our research shows that when women become CEOs it is more likely that there will be gender balance in executive teams overall. I congratulate Diageo and to other companies I say, catch up – and quickly.”

Russ Mould, investment director at the stockbroker AJ Bell, said: “Crew becomes the 13th female boss of a FTSE 100 company, based on the CEO role or chair for investment trusts. That shows progress in bringing more equality to the boardrooms of UK-listed blue-chip companies, but many would argue a lot more needs to be done.”

The female chairs of FTSE-100-listed investment trusts are: Fiona McBain at Scottish Mortgage, who is leaving in July after a corporate governance row; Anne Farlow at Pershing Square and Beatrice Hollond at F&C.

Diageo’s announcement came after the firm reported a 15% rise in operating profits to £3.2bn in the six months to the end of December. However, sales growth slowed from the double-digit rises previously and Diageo said it expected the operating environment to “continue to be challenging” because of high inflation and the cost of living crisis.

Derren Nathan, the head of equity research at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “A change at the top is always a leap into the unknown, although slightly less so when the incumbent is already part of the team. Diageo is the sixth largest company on the FTSE 100, and the new captain is unlikely to be given much of a honeymoon period by shareholders. Sir Ivan will be a tough act to follow. Diageo now sells over 200 drinks brands across 180 markets, and is a category leader in many of its spirits categories.”