The Interview: Former mandarin heads for M&S with a mission to keep disputes private

Lord Burns Chairman-elect, Marks & Spencer
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The Independent Online

Lord Burns has another four months to wait before he joins Marks & Spencer, but the chairman-in-waiting could already teach his future boardroom colleagues a thing or two.

For starters, the former Treasury mandarin is not one to wash his laundry in public - unlike the retailer's directors, who are hardly shy when it comes to such matters. The semi-public battle over whether Paul Myners should be replaced as chairman split the M&S board as only Marks knows how.

"I don't like to see that kind of thing. I was very unhappy to see my name surface in the papers [at the height of the squabble]. It is not a good way generally in life to be fighting battles in public," he says. "My priority will be about making sure that the board works well. Its composition, relationships between people on the board, that it is a group that supports management but also challenges them, that they develop together a common view about where the company is going and what the issues are."

Healing the boardroom divisions will be just one "to do" on the long list of challenges that Lord Burns will face when he eventually succeeds Mr Myners. Which won't be until July 2006, after he has spent the best part of a year as deputy chairman. For that was the compromise struck to give the consummate all-rounder the chance to learn yet another trade and Mr Myners the hope of witnessing some semblance of a recovery at the troubled group.

Challenges are something that Lord Burns is rather keen on, which is just as well given the parlous state of the old Dame of the high street. "I've been fortunate pretty much all my working life to have been working on issues that I have thoroughly enjoyed and which I have both found challenging and exciting. Work to me has never been a great burden. It's always been a large part of what I've wanted to do. I'm a bit driven about these things but it's the way that I am," declares the 61-year-old.

His boardroom colleagues-to-be will doubtless be scrutinising Lord Burns' long track record to see what else they can glean about their incoming chairman. The fact that he sold Abbey, the bank he still he chairs, will not go unnoticed. Nor will his swift dismissal of Ian Harley, who was running the bank when Lord Burns took the helm.

I ask him if Stuart Rose [M&S's chief executive] should be worried? "Come on, now," he pleads. "You can never draw conclusions from one episode. That's a very weak line of argument, but I can quote you lots of other things I've been involved in when nothing like this has happened at all."

Quite the reverse happened, in fact, when Sir Terence, as he was then, got a new boss himself at the Treasury. He is tight-lipped on the subject, but is widely believed to have left after falling out with Gordon Brown. Sir Terry's Thatcherite image - he cut his policy teeth at the heels of the Iron Lady - never gelled with the Chancellor, or his coterie of advisers, including Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan.

"There are all sorts of god knows how many books and accounts of this but it was time for me to move on. I'd had a good long run at that. I wouldn't have missed my time at the Treasury for anything. But it was time to move on. It was time to do something different," he says, diplomatically. (M&S directors, take note.) "Fortunately I was able to leave at an age when I was still able to do some other things and it's turned out to have been a fascinating experience since."

He praises the Treasury under Mr Brown, but escapes from expressing broader views on New Labour by proclaiming himself "politically neutral". He says: "I think the Treasury has had a good run. A very good run. The economy's performed well and I think that the decisions that were put in place at the beginning about the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority have worked out as well as could have been expected."

He claims not to think the Treasury suffered unduly from the department's early dalliance with spin, which ultimately led to Mr Whelan's resignation. "Most organisations wish to put the best face on what they are doing. Companies do it, Governments do it, departments do it ... If you don't do well, by and large, spin won't be enough to see you through. It is about getting the substance right. And I think in a number of important respects the economy has performed very well. It may be that it's going to be a bit tougher. I can see that."

A former academic, Lord Burns was part of the clutch of London Business School disciples who reacted to Britain's economic failings in the Seventies by advocating the merits of a market economy. Described by one former associate as "the architect of the flexible economy", as plain old Terry he heralded the end of Keynesianism and Britain's addiction to government state aid for industry during his stint as the chief economic adviser to the Treasury in the Eighties.

Despite living life these days at a purely micro level, Lord Burns sees remarkably few differences between approaching sweeping macro issues and the private sector. "What they [the various different stages of my life] have in common is that the problems are complex, if of different natures. They involve a combination of analysis and decision-making. Almost everything I've done has been a combination of what I think of as content and process. It's about how you get the right answer and trying to get the right answer in the right way."

This applies as much to the various government reviews he has done - from the National Lottery, to fox-hunting to the BBC Charter renewal - as to his tasks in boardrooms including British Land, Pearson and Legal & General. His economic philosophy, he says, shapes how he approaches problems: M&S watch out!

"I'm very respectful of the marketplace. The marketplace is an important part of our life. I'm enormously respectful of customers. And what it is that customers want. They are the people who call the tune in the end. You accept that you live in a market economy and you've got to do the best you can within that. You can't spend your life complaining because people are not doing what it is you want them to do," he says.

What this means in practice for M&S and its infamous bureaucracy he is not prepared to say, but he is unlikely to be sentimental when it comes to making tough decisions. And with the consumer outlook worsening, tough decisions are likely to be two a penny when he joins the retailer.

Peacemaker

Age: 61

Salary: £465,000 last year as chairman of Abbey. Will initially earn £175,000 as deputy chairman of Marks & Spencer, rising to £400,000 when he becomes chairman.

Background: Born the son of a colliery blacksmith, Lord Burns grew up in a council house in the northern mining village of Hetton-le-Hole, near Sunderland. Went to Houghton-le-Spring grammar school, then read economics at Manchester University.

Career History: Joined the London Business School with a research post in 1965; left as professor of economics. Chief economic adviser to the Treasury 1980 to 1991; permanent secretary to HM Treasury, 1991 to 1998. Non-executive director at Pearson and British Land. Has chaired Glas Cymru (Welsh Water) since 2000 and Abbey since 2002. Appointed life peer in 1998.

Interests: Football (Queens Park Rangers), snooker, music and golf.

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