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


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