Tuesday 25 October 2016

New M&S boss tells investors recovery plan is different this time

James Davey

Published 13/07/2016 | 08:02

M&S ceo Steve Rowe. Photo: Adrian Brooks
M&S ceo Steve Rowe. Photo: Adrian Brooks

The new boss of Marks & Spencer appealed to the British retailer's army of private shareholders to back his attempt to revive its clothing business, but some attendees at Tuesday's annual investor meeting remained fearful of another false dawn.

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Steve Rowe, a 26-year M&S veteran who succeeded Marc Bolland as chief executive in April, has pledged to turn around the clothing business by improving ranges and availability, cutting prices and offering fewer promotions.

His plan came with a warning of a short-term dent to sales and profit and last week the 132-year-old group reported its worst quarterly clothing sales fall for a decade.

Rowe said in May that he would focus on the retailer's average customer, a 50-year-old woman he described as "Mrs M&S", who had been neglected in the pursuit of younger, more fashion-conscious shoppers.

"I know that it's a big ask for me to stand here today with a new set of ideas and ask you to trust me that things will be different this time," Rowe told a packed meeting at London's Wembley Stadium complex.

"(But) I firmly believe that we can return our clothing business to positive growth."

Small private shareholders account for about a quarter of M&S equity, prompting Rowe to take steps to counter the most vocal perennial AGM complainers by inviting a group to a shareholder panel "tea party" last month.

The tone of Tuesday's meeting was generally positive, with one shareholder, a Mr Clark, describing the CEO's speech as "inspirational stuff".

Some, however, were unconvinced.

A Mrs Smith introduced herself as "not Mrs M&S" and questioned whether management understands its customers.

"In my view, the remark about Mrs M&S shows that you don't," she said.

"It was in my opinion the most disastrous piece of marketing since Gerald Ratner extolled the virtues of his silver-plated dinner set," she added, in a reference to an infamous speech given by the boss of jewellery chain Ratners in 1991.

"It does suggest to me that you still live in the world where women dress from head to toe in one brand -- we don't ... We're individuals and we don't like being labelled."

Shares in M&S, down 38 percent over the past year, rose 1.5 percent to 334 pence at Tuesday's close.


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