The Private Investor: 'Reuters starts to recover, but let's hear it in plain English'

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The Independent Online

What do you say when you've hit rock bottom? I bet you don't reflect on your position and utter something along the lines that you had "passed the inflection point in our recurring revenue decline".

Those are the less than plain words of Tom Glocer, the chief executive of Reuters, and they must merit some sort of award for bad English. Still, if Mr Glocer is calling the bottom of the market in his sector that can only be good news. Reuters still has serious problems in terms of its competitiveness, but its shares have had an impressive run in recent weeks and have served the portfolio well.

But that is only because I bought a few on their way to the bottom. Having smashed their way up through 300p last week, they stand at about treble their nadir last spring. Or, to bring us down to earth, roughly where they were in 2002 (on their way down), and in 1993 (on their way up).

At least there are signs of recovery at Reuters. Sadly we cannot see much of that at Marks & Spencer. The shares took last week's miserable trading statement in their stride, but that, perhaps, is because they had been hammered so hard in advance.

They actually stand below their level of 1994. Everything's sagging. Clearly, there is a problem. Here, therefore, is my application for the post of chief executive or, failing that, head of clothing. (As you may know, the position of the chief executive, Roger Holmes, may not be tenable and the head of clothing, David Norgrove, has resigned). First, I write garbed from head to toe in M&S apparel. As a long-standing customer, I know its strengths and weaknesses and I know, as a middle-aged, deeply unfashionable male, that if I am a fan of their stuff there must be something wrong with what they're doing. Of course, I know the real weakness is in womenswear, but I'm sure I can soon get to grips with that too.

Second, I have read far too much in the press about management problems at M&S. There would be no room for that in my regime. Neither am I particularly interested in slightly abstruse arguments about "corporate culture". That can be wacky or staid, provided the thing makes money. That has to be the focus. And if M&S cannot do clothing right itself it should go out and pay someone to get it right for them. Go to the Royal College of Art and pick a 25-year-old graduate student if you have to, but do something.

The third qualification I have for promotion to such a high level in the company is that I am a small shareholder in it. Not, you'll note, a large shareholder. They are of two types, neither much use in the present circumstances. One type are those institutional shareholders who, with rare exceptions, do not exercise anything like the responsibility they should on behalf of their investors. The second type are the ones you find in the report and accounts; directors and senior management who own hundreds of thousands of shares, accumulated through one scheme or other, and whose salaries are of unimaginably generous proportions.

Mr Norgrove was paid a total of £595,000, including a bonus of £268,000, the latest annual report shows. I don't really know or care what the analysts who study these things say: even if these guys get the sack and Marks goes belly up they'll still be in multi-million pound mansions with big cars outside and a fat pension to look forward to. Small shareholders have vastly more to lose, proportionately, and are vastly under-represented in the affairs of the firm. We have an interest in its future.

Much the same might be said of the present management of Standard Life, with whom I have a small endowment policy. Except that in the case of Standard Life we are talking about a mutual organisation, in which all members are supposed to have equal status. I have not taken my money out because I am not quite sure how bad its affairs really are. That is the snag. I have, as a member of the mutual, not received much in the way of communication about its difficulties. In those circumstances people tend to fear the worst.

s.o'grady@independent.co.uk

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