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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
M&S investors join forces to beat off takeover
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online business reporter at the M&S AGM

Shareholders enter the M&S AGM 2004
The weather and Mr Green's approach sent fighting spirits soaring.

Braving the British summer weather, several hundred Marks & Spencer shareholders spent Wednesday morning huddled under umbrellas, queuing to get in to the Royal Festival Hall in London.

Many of them were there to hail their new leader, Stuart Rose, who six weeks ago took on the task of revitalising this, in the words of shareholder John Nathan, "great British institution", sending its share price soaring in response.

"Marks & Spencer has gone through troubled times. We've now got the right chair and the right chief executive and I wouldn't want it taken over by that [man]," fellow investor Philip Goldenberg told BBC News Online - referring to the controversial 9.1bn ($17bn) takeover approach by his namesake, retail tycoon Philip Green.

But not everyone agreed: "I'm here to get rid of the board," another shareholder, who preferred to remain anonymous, told BBC News Online. "I'm all for Green. I just don't trust the others."

Fighting spirit

And yet, despite the presence of such views, the atmosphere was positively cheery among the hundreds of private investors who had gathered in the vast Royal Festival Hall.

M&S share graph
The value of M&S shares rose sharply when Mr Rose was appointed.

Getting all of them registered caused delays, and this gave M&S chairman Paul Myners an opportunity to bring further cheer to the party by declaring that this "momentous" annual general meeting was adjourned for 15 minutes, "but I'm not going to do a Cliff Richard sing-song".

It is a well known phenomenon that adversity unites the British people, and this time it seemed the weather and Mr Green's approach had sent the shareholders' fighting spirits soaring.

Indeed, judging by a quick straw poll conducted by BBC News ahead of the meeting, the M&S board had reason to be cheery.

The poll found that of the 200 shareholders asked, 134 were backing Mr Rose. Only 25 wanted Mr Green to take over the company, while the remaining 41 were undecided.

Less is more

So the show of strength did not come as a surprise. After all, this gathering of private investors, many of them current or former employees, are effectively Marks & Spencer's most loyal customers, Mr Myners suggested.

Stuart Rose and Paul Myners
Mr Rose and Mr Myners had the audience on their side.

The company has 325,000 shareholders, "all of them, I believe, shoppers at M&S", he told the investors.

So here they were, meeting with their chief executive, Mr Rose, agreeing that the past has been bruising, and insisting that the future should see a return to basic M&S values - quality, value, service, innovation and trust.

"Less is more," declared Mr Rose - repeatedly. "We've got too many market segments, too many initiatives.

"We've lost our confidence in our core brand, and we're in danger of devaluing it with sub-brands.

"Our customers are confused, frustrated and disappointed.

Core business

But Mr Rose's slating criticism did not amount to a confessional. After all, he has only just taken over at the helm and is therefore not responsible for the company's difficulties.

Woman shopping in M&S store on Kings Road, 14 July 2004
Marks & Spencer will focus on its core customers.

So this was trouble-shooting on a large scale, by shareholders and new leaders alike.

Mr Rose was also keen to offer solutions. "Good retailing is about being half a step ahead of our customers, never more, never less."

And he was greeted warmly by his backers, one of them Barry Hyman, a former colleague from when Mr Rose used to work for M&S for 17 years.

Mr Hyman bassooned that he would "prefer a Marks & Spencer viewed through Rose-tinted spectacles to one going Green around the gills".

Mr Rose responded to this audience hungry for change by reiterating his vision for the future, first outlined to institutional shareholders on Monday: M&S should once again focus on its core retail business and its traditional customers, namely women in the 35-55 age group.

"We need to become customer and sales led rather than process driven," he said, announcing for the second time his plans for a massive clean-out that would involve the sale of non-core assets and brands, the farming out of its financial services to HSBC, the closure of some stores, and voluntary redundancies for 650 members of staff.

Sack the board

The planned reforms were announced to great applause, but not everyone were sold on Mr Rose's ideas.

"We keep on getting new management teams, but nothing much happens," cried shareholder Mr Flounder. "Every time we get a new team, they sack their staff.

Philip Green
Some shareholders would like to sell to Philip Green.

"Wouldn't it be better if we kept them and sacked the board?"

He was joined by shareholder Mr Bash who said "the board here was responsible for paying Luc [Vandevelde, former chairman] millions for doing absolutely nothing.

"Philip Green last year made 100m for Arcadia, and you talk to me about turning this company around?"

Mr Bash said institutional investors - who due to their large stakes in M&S are the ones to decide whether or not a takeover attempt would be successful - should accept Mr Green's proposal, describing it as the "best offer since sliced bread".

"Mr Bash by name, Mr Bash by nature," quipped Mr Myners in response, winning more favour with an already loyal crowd.

Decision makers

But Mr Myners also had to acknowledge that the institutional investors, which include insurance companies and pension funds, were not in attendance, having heard from Mr Rose just two days earlier.

This truly irked shareholder Martin Edwards-Symonds.

"They should be severely reprimanded. It is disgraceful that they are not here, he said.

"We do not want absentee shareholders deciding the future of this company."

If Mr Edwards-Symonds' view of the world is true, then the decision on whether or not M&S is to be sold to Mr Green will be taken in the City of London. If so, the individual shareholders gathering across the Thames was of little relevance and amounted to little more than a hearty display of idealism.

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