Meet the new Marks and Spencer - a shop window for its website

My Week
  • @mrjamesashton

How the world turns. Time was when the City thought Marks and Spencer had no executive bench strength, which was how the retailer got backed into appointing Stuart Rose as both chairman and chief executive. That concentration of power wasn’t always popular with investors and proved messy to unwind.

This week the company made a virtue of necessity, shuffling its management line-up after international director Jan Heere decided to return to Russia. The standout move was that of Laura Wade-Gery, the digital boss, who also gained responsibility for the 800-store British network. Followers instantly claimed that put Ms Wade-Gery in pole position to succeed Marc Bolland as chief executive – or at the very least put her in a three-way battle with food boss Steve Rowe and John Dixon, his non-food opposite number. Nonsense, company chiefs said. Still, it’s better than headlines about an executive exodus.

A few observations. Of course there is no reason why the company shouldn’t have a female boss when you might expect most of its shoppers to be women. Why it hasn’t already is a moot point. Then again, leadership of the Big Four supermarkets is a male preserve even though women make most of the family grocery-buying decisions.

More interesting is that Ms Wade-Gery, poached from Tesco three years ago, assumes control of the bricks after making her name in clicks. The company still has much to prove with its website, which it only relaunched a few months ago after taking back control of it from Amazon. But the promotion shows the tail is finally wagging the dog in retail.

Marks and Spencer quietly blazes trails now and again. It was the first retailer to bring sushi to Britain, only to think again when raw fish was found to be too exotic for its clientele. It was reintroduced years later as palates changed. Ms Wade-Gery’s challenge is less exotic: to use the stores as a window on the web. Others will follow.

More women are needed for engineering to forge ahead

 Sir John Parker and the Princess Royal were preaching to the converted on Wednesday night at the Royal Academy of Engineering awards dinner at the Royal Opera House.

Everyone agrees that Britain has great engineering prowess and makes a key contribution to the skills base and exports – but that it needs to expand. The target of doubling the annual number of engineering graduates by 2020 to meet demand is not a new one.

Part of the challenge for the industry is image, but that is a battle being won. Certainly the winner of this year’s MacRobert Award, Cobalt Light Systems, whose technology could revolutionise airport security by identifying a solid or liquid inside a container, doesn’t smack of the metal-bashing image of old. Nor does another finalist, OptaSense, part of Qinetiq, whose hi-tech acoustic sensing taps into the earth’s “nervous system” to help the military as well as oil companies.

Diners I talked to on the night singled out the standard of physics education in this country, suggesting that only 30 per cent of physics teachers have a degree in the subject. But there is also an element of machismo in school science labs, or why else does physics prove more popular with girls in girls-only schools?

The graduate target will only be met by attracting more women to engineering. The Princess Royal is a patron of WISE (Women Into Science And Engineering), which gets female engineers back into schools to talk up the profession. Yet only 12 per cent of engineering graduates are female, a ratio that hasn’t really moved for a decade, according to chatter on the night. It is not a trend that can be overhauled overnight. Food for thought for Dame Ann Dowling, who replaces Sir John as the academy’s first female president later this year.

Too much banking regulation will backfire on Britain

 It is amazing how relaxed Stephen Hester was when I met him the other day. The former Royal Bank of Scotland chief is used to speaking his mind, but in those last few months at the taxpayer-owned lender, he was forced to button his lip in public.

Now, clearing up the mess at insurer RSA, he is far freer to talk. It is amazing how much of the “splashy stuff”, as he calls it, has been achieved in five months since arriving as boss of the More Than group. A £773m rights issue, speedy asset sales and pulling back from unprofitable business lines means RSA’s string of profit warnings is fast becoming just an unhappy memory.

That has left him with time to muse on the bigger picture. The insurance industry faces regulatory challenges, but nothing on the scale of banking. Mr Hester’s concern is that just as the global economy begins leaping ahead again, banks in those countries where regulation hits hardest will be left behind.

It is money and information that flow most easily across borders. They act as the “essential oil” that allows the world to globalise further, he says. So, by all means protect domestic banks and customer savings, but efforts to halt that flow will either fail or harm the economies that pull the drawbridge up most firmly.

Britain is a small island that needs to keep a very open economy, but some of the cross-border strength in areas such as trade finance has already been lost. It is an argument that Mr Hester didn’t win with George Osborne, which is why he is leading RSA now and not RBS. But it remains a valid argument.