August 10, 2022

When M&S boss Steve Rowe walks the store flooring, speaking a mile a minute and consistently stopping to greet his workers, he appears to personify the spirit of the much-loved chain. 

Normally wearing a go well with purchased from ‘The Arch’ – the flagship retailer in Marble Arch in Central London – he brims with enthusiasm about all the things from cashmere hoodies to spa-worthy scented candles. 

Rowe, 54, has spent nearly 40 years at M&S, having joined the corporate from college on the age of 15 and risen via the ranks to turn out to be chief government. 

Group participant: Steve Rowe (left) joined M&S from college on the age of 15 and labored his means as much as chief government

So why is he leaving now, simply because the enterprise, which has been via some of the troubled intervals in its 138-year historical past, appears to have turned a nook? 

‘There’s a hazard with chief executives that hold round too lengthy,’ he says. 

The enterprise, he argues, is at an ‘inflexion level’ the place he has set it firmly heading in the right direction for the restoration that has been elusive for therefore lengthy. Now he is able to hand over to others for the subsequent part of the transformation. ‘The issues that have to be achieved now, these are five-year jobs, so it’s proper at hand over.’ 

When he took the reins six years in the past, the much-loved retailer was within the claws of one in all its worst crises. A string of chairmen and chief executives had didn’t cease the rot as the corporate misplaced floor to on-line rivals and to new excessive road opponents equivalent to Zara. By the point Rowe and chairman Archie Norman took over, it was a case of do or die. 

When Rowe put collectively a presentation on turning the corporate round, his first slide was entitled ‘Placing out fires’ and Norman described it as a ‘burning platform’. Now, Rowe frankly admits that, though the corporate by no means truly got here to the brink of chapter like Debenhams, it may have gone hurtling down the highway to smash if that they had not applied their drastic restoration plan.

‘A enterprise as challenged as M&S was, with declining income and gross sales, properly you could possibly see how there was a route that if we didn’t change, we may simply go that means. It was a really actual subject. 

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‘M&S, like another enterprise, has no God-given proper to exist. 

‘It has been arduous yards, a very massive programme of change. We now have lifted up each stone on this enterprise, had a very good look beneath and we’ve got not put them down once more till we’ve got mounted it.’ 

How shut did M&S get to the brink? ‘Look, I don’t suppose we had been ever in fairly the precarious state of the others, we had a very good steadiness sheet. We weren’t on a knife edge to be going bankrupt, it will be fallacious to say that. But when we didn’t change over a time frame …properly, it will not have been a lovely enterprise. 

‘It’s important to look again and you’ll most likely argue that M&S income had been going backwards at a fee of circa £100 million a yr. We had a retailer property the place the prices had been solely going a method, our returns per sq. foot had been going backwards, we had been shedding market share each single yr in clothes.’ 

Have all of the fires been put out? ‘We now have been making the appropriate enterprise choices and you’ll say these fires have gone. 

‘I don’t need to put phrases in Archie’s mouth however I believe he would say the identical factor. Have we optimised it, no – however we’re not on a burning platform proper now.’ 

In contrast to lots of his predecessors, Rowe can declare to be going out on a excessive notice. His exit, he says, has been deliberate for a while. ‘We didn’t need any of the succession points we had prior to now.’  

He’s alluding to Marks’ historical past of being plagued with messy and abrupt transfers of energy on the high, together with the exit of his predecessor Marc Bolland in 2016 after disappointing clothes gross sales. Again in 2004, the chairman and chief government had been ousted dramatically in the course of a hostile bid from Sir Philip Inexperienced. 

However some within the Metropolis had been left scratching their heads concerning the truth Rowe is handing over to not one however two new leaders, chief government Stuart Machin and co-chief government Katie Bickerstaffe. It feels like a type of ‘purchase one boss, get one free’ deal. 

Maybe it’s flattering that it takes two folks to exchange him, however who is definitely in cost? ‘Stuart is the CEO. Finally he has the final phrase,’ he says. 

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However why give them each the CEO title if they don’t seem to be fully equal? ‘That may be a matter for the board, not for me. However we’ve got to be completely clear the place the stewardship lies. The group does report back to Stuart,’ he says. 

At different corporations, joint chief executives have been a recipe for squabbles and fallings-out. Rowe, nevertheless, says that Machin, Bickerstaffe and technique and finance chief Eoin Tonge are ‘an important group’. ‘The 4 of us have labored collectively very properly and now it is going to be the three of them.’ 

As for the enterprise having its first feminine chief government – albeit one who nonetheless serves beneath a male boss – he says: ‘It shouldn’t be about male or feminine, however I’ve to let you know Katie has been an actual asset. She brings an added edge to the enterprise.’ 

He swerves a query on whether or not the 2 chief executives may have equal pay. ‘The main points will all be revealed as a part of the conventional bundle that goes within the remuneration report,’ he parries. 

No matter whether or not or not it seems to be sexist to put in the primary feminine chief government solely to have her reporting to a male superior, Bickerstaffe and Machin may have their work lower out.

New bosses: Co-chief executives Stuart Machin and Katie Bickerstaffe

New bosses: Co-chief executives Stuart Machin and Katie Bickerstaffe

‘After we go down the roles listing I’d say to you we’ve got made a very good fist of fixing issues and understanding what to do. However is all the things mounted to the purpose that it’s market main, no it’s not. I’d be the primary to confess that. We now have solely achieved about 5 out of ten on the transformation journey.’ 

He’s acutely conscious that M&S has had many false dawns prior to now. ‘We now have obtained to keep up momentum in clothes and residential, and in meals. We now have to indicate folks it is a sustainable restoration, which is one thing we haven’t achieved prior to now. With out that means to be conceited, we’ve got achieved all the things we mentioned we had been going to do in my management on time and on funds.’ 

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Below Rowe’s command, Marks has shut underperforming shops and opened new ones, in addition to sprucing up drab outlets.

Its shares fell to this point it misplaced its place within the blue-chip FTSE100 index in 2019. Since then they’ve risen strongly, hitting £2.50 earlier this yr, however regardless of Rowe’s greatest efforts fell again to £1.60 on Friday. 

The largest transformation he says, is the £750million deal to promote M&S groceries via the web retailer Ocado. ‘In the future we’d say this was as important as transferring from Penny Bazaars into excessive streets. Time will decide that one, however it’s a large transfer. We now have constructed a digital and information engine, with 14million Sparks playing cards and 4 million customers of our app.’ 

Leaving will undoubtedly be an emotional wrench for Rowe, who’s married with two daughters. He’s a workaholic who loves nothing greater than wandering the aisles of his native retailer in Bromley, Kent. 

He has ‘no ideas’ on his subsequent transfer as he has been so busy specializing in M&S. ‘However I’m not hanging my boots up, I’ve not retired, if that’s what you’re asking.’ Will he come to the annual shareholder assembly and ask awkward questions, as small buyers are apt to do? ‘Undoubtedly not,’ he laughs. 

He lacks the airs and graces of many chief executives, declining to maneuver into his predecessor’s grand workplace on the Paddington HQ, even eliminating an specific raise to the chief flooring. In contrast to most company bigwigs who hang-out posh eating places like The Wolseley, he holds courtroom in M&S retailer cafes, among the many mums and infants and the clattering cutlery. For lunch, he favours a prawn sandwich from one in all his meals halls. 

His dad Joe was a senior supervisor so M&S is in his DNA. ‘I’ve labored arduous and I’ve loved each single second of my work,’ he says. ‘I’m one of many luckiest folks alive. Having a job I’ve been capable of work and revel in on daily basis of my life is a uncommon privilege.’ 

‘Will I miss it? Yeah, after all, however I’m fairly certain I’ll go to the occasional store. However M&S is one massive household, you by no means depart. It’s the largest alumni group within the UK and I’m wanting ahead to becoming a member of.’