The pressure was on. Sir Stuart Rose was going to have to give the performance of his life at Marks & Spencer's annual general meeting last week, on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall in front of hordes of alarmed investors. The nation's business pages had been predicting a revolt by up to a quarter of his dissatisfied shareholders. Could this AGM even prove to be his swansong if he failed to get them back onside – a tragic fall "from hero to zero" as one headline proclaimed?
Once, he could do no wrong. Having fought off Sir Philip Green's takeover bid four years ago, Sir Stuart became a fabulous success story as he pulled the company out of a slump, with the shares climbing from around £3.50 on his appointment in May 2004 to a heady £7 during last year. But this spring several major shareholders protested vociferously when the retailer announced Sir Stuart was to take on the post of chairman in addition to his chief executive role – a breach of corporate "best practice" guidelines.
Then at the start of this month, while the FTSE 100 headed into a technical bear market, M&S released a profit warning. Its food sales had taken a nasty turn and the company's overall UK sales, like-for-like in the quarter from April to June, had dropped 5.3 per cent. In reaction to this news, the share value plunged to 212p, down by a third.
So a great deal of comfort eating appeared to be going on in the foyer when I arrived at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday. M&S was providing its shareholders with a gratefully received free lunch, even though there isn't supposed to be any such thing. Certainly, the so-called "grey brigade" of small investors – mostly sensible-looking, silver-haired and smart-casual – weren't baying for Sir Stuart's blood as they sipped their wine and tucked into chocolate cake. Clearly, no one wanted to think about the collective tightening of belts just yet. Or perhaps they had been soothed by the smiling and attentive staff, all sporting sashes in that trademark soft minty-green, printed with the reassuring mantra "YOUR M&S".
Finally, everyone was ushered into the auditorium. The stage looked something like a political rally crossed with the Last Supper, huge corporate logos towering over a long table. Actually, the main aim of the board, as they filed in to take their seats, was to make the event as undramatic as possible. This was about smart grey suits and dry statistics, projected graphs and bullet points. Several of the non-executives merely sat demurely throughout, like shop dummies.
This was still a performance, though. The stage lighting subliminally encouraged calm and hope, a soft dawn-glow emanating from behind the table. And Sir Stuart looked impressively unruffled – an elegant éminence grise, impeccably dapper with smoothed-down hair. He spoke calmly of needing to maintain the balance between prudence and investment. He underlined that M&S was a strong business, just in a weak market right now, and that he and his team were listening to their financially pressed customers and acting swiftly to rectify the problems with stock availability.
On closer inspection, he was perhaps not quite as cool as he seemed. With his face being filmed and projected on a giant overhead screen, a nervous licking of the lips was writ large. His slightly constrained larynx became croaky at one point too, combined with his odd habit of speaking out of the side of his mouth, which makes him look a bit like a ventriloquist. He said he was losing his voice.
Yet, fundamentally, he exuded a persuasive air of steady reliability – solid as a rock albeit on the shifting sands of the depressed economy. Indeed, as the AGM progressed, it became clear that the shareholders who had rolled up were, in the main, fans of Sir Stuart. Though there may have been a swathe of disapproving abstentions, 94.1 per cent ended up voting for his re-election, with only 5.9 against. There had been one notable heckle: when Sir Stuart defended M&S's decision to charge for plastic bags, a surely ecologically confused yell of "Rubbish!" reverberated around the hall.
Certainly, in the question and answer session after his speech, many criticisms and worries were raised. Nonetheless, the slow handclapping was saved for those shareholders who hogged the mike to ask multiple niggling questions.
Sir Stuart's body language became positively saintly at such moments, with his fingers together as if in patient prayer. He's the Ratzinger of retail.
At another point, he got lively and whisked out from behind his podium, down to the front of the stage as if this were a rock gig. It would be a big exaggeration to say the crowd went wild, but he was treated to sporadic rounds of applause, and he charmed the socks off one customer who bemoaned this season's range of clothing. He would personally take her shopping, he said, and he was sure she'd find something lovely in store. Here's hoping.