Page last updated at 17:04 GMT, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Sir Stuart Rose's legacy at M&S

By Rebecca Marston
Business reporter, BBC News


Sir Stuart Rose: "I think we've come up with a first class candidate"

Marks and Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose had the warmest of welcomes when he took the chief executive job five years ago.

He has been one of the best-known British business leaders - so why are shareholders celebrating the fact he is scaling back his role?

Not because he has failed his investors. For a number of years after stepping in to fight off a takeover bid from Sir Philip Green in 2004, Sir Stuart was lauded by investors and retail experts alike.

He is credited with refocusing and re-energising the business, giving it cachet among younger, more fashion-savvy customers and making it more profitable.

He even managed to bring full-year profits back to the magical level of £1bn - something not seen since the company's real heyday in 1997.

But all that praise melted away like the centre of a chocolate steam pudding last March when Sir Stuart announced he would add the role of chairman to his chief executive duties.

History lessons

Sir Stuart did not have to look too far back to see how things change for Marks and Spencer heroes who take on both the top roles. In the 1990s, Sir Richard Greenbury, the first to take the company to the magic billion profit level, found himself reviled in his final year in the roles.

Marks & Spencer chief Sir Stuart Rose
Last Christmas as chief executive: Sir Stuart celebrates 125 years of M&S

The next man to hold both positions was the Belgian Luc Vandevelde. Hailed as the saviour of the struggling chain, he ended his time there under a barrage of questions as to his commitment to the company.

Now Sir Stuart himself has suffered the same turn in sentiment.

At the recent annual general meeting shareholders, voted by almost 38% against him remaining as chairman and chief executive.

Turnaround king

There is plenty to celebrate of Sir Stuart's time as head of M&S. It's unlikely that any other chairman or indeed chief executive has ever brandished a green bra at his loyal shareholders.

They will remember the trouble that M&S was in when he arrived from Arcadia in 2004, losing market share to hipper and cheaper rivals and struggling to argue a case for remaining independent against repeated approaches from rival retailer - and former friend - Sir Philip Green.

Model Twiggy unveils a revamped M&S store on Oxford Street
1960s model Twiggy has helped to add glamour to the brand

His turnaround strategy involved taking control of women's fashion brand Per Una, selling non-core businesses and injecting glamour into its brand by using celebrities such as Twiggy and Antonio Banderas in its advertising. It proved highly successful.

The son of a civil servant, Sir Stuart was educated at a Quaker boarding school before starting his career in retail in 1972 as an M&S trainee.

His turnaround act there on his return was not the first time that Sir Stuart, who was knighted in 2007 for services to the retail industry and corporate social responsibility, had worked his retail magic.

As chief executive of Argos in 1998, he secured a higher price for the catalogue chain when it was sold to retail giant GUS.

Later, as boss of troubled cash-and-carry business Booker, he arranged its merger with food retailer Iceland, going on to become the enlarged group's chief executive.

Paxman's pants

Sir Stuart will hand over the chief executive baton in the new year to Marc Bolland, but even then, he may be around for another 18 months.

Sir Stuart Rose
Sir Stuart has been a powerful presence at the helm of M&S

His promise to shareholders is to stay on as part-time chairman to ensure a smooth transition and to leave the company by July 2011.

He said he left the company in much better shape than when he joined. Back then, he added, the chief executive simply couldn't even rely on his staff to choose the right coloured frock.

Sir Stuart himself is a man known for his sure-footed and dapper dressing, often from the rails of his own company.

He is also known for taking a personal interest in his customers' thoughts on his products - he once arranged a meeting with Jeremy Paxman following the BBC presenter's criticism of M&S men's underwear.

His successor has been welcomed as a much-needed breath of outside air, but he will have his work cut out if he wants to rival Sir Stuart's marked personal presence.

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