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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
The rise and fall of M&S
Marks & Spencer in Manchester
M&S rose from penny bazaar to high-street behemoth
The fluctuating fortunes of retailer Marks & Spencer are laid bare in a new book from journalist Judi Bevan.

"The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer" discloses clandestine attempts to merge with GUS and Safeway, as well as juicy nuggets about the company's founders and chairmen.

Judi Bevan's book, 'The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer'
Ms Bevan uncovers an attempted merger
With painstaking research over three years, Ms Bevan pieces together the history of M&S from its time as a penny bazaar, through the glory days right up to its more faded present.

Publication of the book has been rushed to coincide with the launch of George Davies' Per Una collection of M&S womenswear.

Project Heaven

The book reveals that talks to merge with GUS got under way in 1994, after an initial approach from GUS in the 1980s was rebuffed.

A Goldman Sachs banker involved in the deal "thought the two companies would make such a good marriage that he codenamed the proposed deal Project Heaven", according to Ms Bevan.

Sir Richard Greenbury, the former chairman of M&S
Sir Richard comes in for some harsh criticism
The combined group would have created the biggest UK retailer in terms of its share value.

However, disquiet from M&S directors and the nervousness of the company's then chairman Sir Richard Greenbury ended the negotiations.

"Project Heaven was mothballed without the shareholders ever knowing how close they came to the pearly gates," writes Ms Bevan.

A possible takeover of Safeway was also called off in 1998 after M&S finance director Robert Colvill recommended the board not to pursue the deal.

Personal foibles

Ms Bevan's eye for the telling detail brings her book to life. Earlier she refers to Mr Colvill as "a neat, precise man who could eat a crusty baguette without a single crumb falling on his suit".

As riveting are her descriptions of tensions in the boardroom and the idiosyncratic failings of M&S' later chairmen.

Peter Salsbury, a former chief executive of M&S
Mr Salsbury was said to have disliked Sir Richard
Anecdotes abound of Sir Richard's supposed dynamic but overbearing personality.

"Greenbury invariably dominated the proceedings, setting the agenda, ostensibly inviting other views while making it all too plain what his were," the book says.

Ms Bevan also goes to town on the "deep-seated loathing" the next chairman Peter Salsbury was said to feel for Sir Richard.

However, there is often repetitious detail - perhaps a sign of Ms Bevan's haste to finish the book before the launch of Per Una.

For example, she tells more than once how seniority of the directors after the death of Lord Marks was denoted by the depth of their carpets, the size of their desks and the number of their windows.

Chairman by chapter

The book progresses by following the reign of each chairman - with details of his respective managerial style and personal life - through to the present.


She is reputed to have told her host that it was the most successful shopping she had ever done

Judi Bevan on Queen Mary in 1932
With liberal amounts of imagination, she recounts how the talented Lord Marks turns his father's string of penny bazaars into a modern retail chain.

In 1932 Ms Bevan tells of how Queen Mary pays a visit to Marks & Spencer in Oxford Street.

"She is reputed to have told her host that it was the most successful shopping she had ever done.

Successive chairmen
Founder: Michael Marks (sets up first stall in 1884)
1916-1964: Lord (Simon) Marks
1964-1967: Lord (Israel) Sieff
1967-1972: Edward Sieff
1972-1984: Lord (Marcus) Sieff
1984-1991: Lord (Derek) Rayner
1991-1999: Sir Richard Greenbury
2000-present: Luc Vandevelde
"After bidding her and her entourage farewell, Simon [Lord Marks] turned with shining eyes to one of his executives, Willie Jacobson, and said: 'Well that wasn't bad for the son of a pedlar!'"

The book's preoccupation with personal foibles and lives of its characters adds to its readability.

The breakdown of Sir Richard's second marriage, Lord Marks' enduring relationship with Israel Sieff (later Lord Sieff) and the reported homosexuality of Derek Rayner (later Lord Rayner) provide spice amid the trading figures and the Harvard Business school studies.

She throws into the mix accounts of the company's ethos, its relationship with suppliers, annual accounts and family trees.

Blame

As part of her research, Ms Bevan gained access to Sir Richard, former directors, members of the founding families and staff.

In her acknowledgements, she writes, "I would like to mention the former chairman, Sir Richard Greenbury, who gave generously of his time despite the almost certain knowledge that he would disagree with some of my conclusions."

Certainly, her treatment of Sir Richard does seem overly harsh at times and he is clearly blamed for the retailer's lurch into decline.

A M&S spokesman said: "It is an interesting story and an entertaining read about the past history of M&S, but in the future we are all firmly focused on our priority of business recovery and renewal".

He added that 99.9% of the book was historical and is "her interpretation of the history".

No conclusion

The end result is a rich and enjoyable account of a company that ruled our high streets for decades and is now struggling to reclaim its place in the affections of the British public.

However, there is a sense of anti-climax as the book draws to its close. Like the real story of Marks & Spencer, the tale ends inconclusively.

The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer is published by Profile Books and costs 16.99.

See also:

28 Sep 01 | Business
Shoppers rush for M&S's new look
28 Sep 01 | Business
Can 'one woman' save M&S?
28 Sep 01 | Business
Struggling M&S launches new range
26 Aug 01 | Business
M&S renews foreign expansion drive
13 Aug 01 | Business
M&S France seeks sole buyer
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