ALEX BRUMMER HOW TO SAVE M&S
MORE THAN three decades have passed since Marks & Spencer relinquished family and Jewish leadership with the retirement of Lord Sieff. The traditions of the founding Marks and Sieff dynasties lingered in the shape of the nonJewish leadership of Sir Richard Greenbury. He was so steeped in the values that his son went on to head Polack House, the Jewish presence, at Clifton College.
Yet despite the passage of time and the divorce from family influence, much of the British Jewish community still feels a strong connection to the company. What happens at M&S is discussed in the pews of synagogues, in the kiddushim and wherever Jews, men and women, gather together. There is an emotional and cultural connection which transcends that of other companies with Jewish roots ranging from Tesco to Shell. It is as if what happens at M&S is intimately connected with all our lives.
This very much came to mind in the first week of January when M&S went through one of the management revolutions which have been commonplace in recent years. The most recent incumbent as chief executive, the elegant Dutchman Marc Bolland, retired to make way for an M&S lifer Steve Rowe — who is steeped in the old values — as his first job was as a 15-year-old shelf-stacker in the Croydon branch and his father sat on the M&S board. It was not an entirely peaceful transition as Bolland was seen as departing earlier than expected and after a horrendous final quarter of 2015 for clothing sales. This historically is the core of what M&S does.
The special affection and sense of ownership in the Jewish community is no accident. In past decades before Israel was regarded as a technological hub almost equal to Silicon Valley, M&S was a loyal commercial friend to the Jewish state. It brought Jaffa oranges and fresh Israeli fruit and vegetables to its shelves before it was fashionable for all supermarkets to stock such produce. Moreover, you didn’t have to search very hard in women’s lingerie or in men’s jackets to find undergarments or blazers fabricated in Israel. When peace was forged between Israel and the largest Arab state Egypt, M&S executives travelled to Cairo pioneering commercial links between the countries and how they might best serve British consumers.
The Jewish heritage is still to be seen in the food halls. M&S is one of the few food chains to sell delicacies, suitably Anglicised, including chopped herring and gefilte fish. I know of some people in the community who mistakenly assume that somehow M&S poultry is more kosher than that anywhere else in the high street — other than fully licensed kosher outlets. All an urban myth of course.
There is another umbilical tie too. Anyone attending an M&S annual general meeting, the best attended of any FTSE100 company, will quickly recognise many in the audience are from the Jewish community. People who shop regularly at M&S are more often than not also shareholders. In my own family one of the great regrets of my mother-in-law, who herself is a scion of a well-known British department store family, is that she listened to her financial adviser who recommended the sale of her M&S holding.
In recent times the problems at M&S have been focused on clothing and womenswear in particular. For decades M&S dominated with the largest market share of lingerie (still the case) and female fashion in general. But the high street has changed. Next, under guidance of Lord Wolfson, has become the most significant British rival largely because of its early embrace of online. Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia, owner of the Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Wallis brands, has shown expertise in fast fashion. M&S has been playing catch up on both fronts.
But the biggest change is the arrival of the largest overseas challengers. The high street and shopping centres and malls are very different to when M&S was in its heyday in the latter part of the 20th century. It must now compete with Swedish owned H&M, Irish-based no frills retailer Primark, Spain’s all conquering Zara and American owned Banana Republic and Gap. It has also had to deal with a growing appetite for designer brands. Beating back this fierce competition will be the main challenge for new boss Steve Rowe.
He has experience of turning things around. Food was suffering when he was moved in by Bolland and he successfully transformed sales. In the face of the price challenge from discounters, notably the German firms Lidl and Aldi, all grocers have suffered including upmarket Waitrose. Only M&S food has powered ahead.
My own conversations with Rowe, who has general merchandise experience, tell me he has a simple recipe for turning M&S around. His main goal is to make sure that stores from Horsham to Rochdale are as well stocked with what the consumer wants in terms of fashion and the latest season’s wear as the landmark Marble Arch and Westfield stores. He also wants to speed up the seasons providing fresher designs and restocking on a more regular basis.
It sounds a smart approach and certainly Rowe has the energy. What we also know is that there will be an army of Jewish M&S consumers and shareholders cheering from the sidelines and trusting in a better future. Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail
Tough: M&S lifer Steve Rowe, one of those behind recent ads, above, is the new boss