By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) - Nick Robertson, the founder of British online fashion retailer ASOS, has stepped down as chief executive after 15 years in which he transformed the internet start-up into a retail powerhouse with millions of fans around the world.
ASOS, popular with Internet savvy twentysomethings and high-profile supporters such as British singer Rita Ora and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, said on Wednesday that Nick Beighton, the company's chief operating officer, would take over from Robertson with immediate effect.
ASOS shares fell as much as 5.7 percent in early trading reflecting uncertainty whether the loss of the retailer's driving force could hinder its growth.
But most analysts viewed the succession as orderly and were relaxed about the changes, particularly as Robertson, 48, is staying on as a non-executive director.
The shares rebounded and were 1.5 percent higher at 30.29 pounds ($46.4) by 0921 GMT.
ASOS had a tough 2014 when it was hurt by the negative impact of exchange rate movements and a fire at its main warehouse. But its shares have risen 18 percent so far in 2015 as it has recovered. Last month, it raised its full-year profit guidance after a strong third quarter.
"It is not a big surprise, as he (Robertson) has been a little disengaged from the business recently," independent retail analyst Nick Bubb said. "Beighton has been well groomed as his successor."
Bubb noted, however, that investors would wonder about possible share sales, given Robertson's 8.4 percent stake in the group, worth about 210 million pounds ($321 million)
Robertson declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
Beighton, 47, joined ASOS in 2009 as chief financial officer, stepping up to the COO role last October. He was widely regarded by analysts as the heir apparent.
"We do not anticipate any sudden change in strategic direction," said analysts at Liberum, retaining their "hold" stance.
"ASOS clearly has momentum in most of its key regions. We remain wary of the high rating but the market appears willing to accept this as long as the sales growth ... continues," they said.
Until last year, when it issued three profit warnings due to currency swings and higher investment needs, ASOS had been the big success story of the British retail scene.
Robertson and Quentin Griffiths founded the-then As Seen On Screen in 2000 and floated the firm on London’s Alternative Investment Market at 20 pence in 2001.
The shares hit a high of 71.95 pounds in February 2014, giving it a market capitalization of 6 billion pounds before the first of the profit warnings.
ASOS is now valued at 2.54 billion pounds or more than two-and-a-half times the value of high street stalwart Debenhams.
(Editing by Kate Holton and Jane Merriman)