The Interview: Retail boss keeps links to the shop floor

Rose Foster, Chief Executive of Monsoon
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The Independent Online

Rose Foster cannot understand those retail executives who make a big deal out of their "back to the floor" days. The sight of a hapless boss fluffing the simplest task may make fantastic telly, but for the woman who runs Monsoon it's a sad indictment of how too many people run their businesses.

Rose Foster cannot understand those retail executives who make a big deal out of their "back to the floor" days. The sight of a hapless boss fluffing the simplest task may make fantastic telly, but for the woman who runs Monsoon it's a sad indictment of how too many people run their businesses.

"I honestly find it incredible that senior people should need a 'back to basics' day. I started on the shop floor, selling, and that's something I fall back on because the day I can't relate to a sales assistant and can't talk to them as a normal person, that's the day I give up," she says.

Watching Mrs Foster at work in Monsoon's newest flagship store, on the King's Road in London, it's quite clear she's in her natural habitat. Dressed in a shocking pink sequinned skirt-and-top set that positively shriek "Monsoon", the 44-year-old chief executive is barely distinguishable from Pip, the store's manager with whom she's deep in shop chat.

Mrs Foster is lucky. Not only is she "retail through and through" courtesy of her 21-year spell at Next, where she learnt all the tricks of the retailing trade, but thanks to her chairman's boardroom peculiarities she has more time to spare than most of her peers to browse racks of summer skirts.

While the likes of Simon Wolfson, her mentor at Next, and Stuart Rose, at Marks & Spencer, struggle to juggle the twin demands of running their companies and sucking up to their City owners, Peter Simon has relieved his lieutenant of arguably the more taxing of those tasks. For every hour her quoted retail rivals spend wooing fund managers, Mrs Foster can triple-check whether her buyers have ordered enough white kaftans, for all those wannabe Jodie Kidds out there. (The brunette model poses languidly in one in Monsoon's latest ad campaign.)

"Ah corporate governance," she sighs, resignedly. "I thought you might bring that up. It's been such a thing in the papers." To be fair, Monsoon's unique take on governance guidelines - a life-size replica of a white cow with gold toenails and a garland stands guard outside the boardroom in the company's west London headquarters - was hardly a storm kicked up by the media.

Rather, the floodgates opened when Mr Simon attempted to increase his family's stake in the company he founded from a Portobello market stall in the mid-Seventies to 92.5 per cent via a complicated scheme that was slammed by investors as underhand for not offering a premium to the then share price. Since then Mr Simon has shunned the City, refused to talk to journalists, declined even to discuss the group's financial results. Anyone might think he was running a private company.

But Mrs Foster swears that the outside world has the wrong impression. "I'm really, honestly not just saying this, but we take all the normal, day-to-day financial, legal and every aspect actually of corporate governance very, very seriously, so we comply with absolutely everything in terms of audits, accountancy. Everything. As you'd expect," she pauses for breath, "we'd be very badly run and I wouldn't be sat here if we didn't comply with that. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. The only bit that we don't really take on board is the non-executive director bit."

Ah yes. The sole, so-called non-executive director is Anton Simon, Peter's brother, who is there to represent the interests of the family trust set up to benefit Peter's four kids. "Just because he's Peter's brother, he doesn't come to side with Peter. It's certainly not a set-up, which I think people think it is. It's far from that. The Code says once you're AIM-listed, you either have non-executive directors, or you explain why you don't. And," she laughs, "Peter explains very clearly why we don't have them." (Last time Mr Simon was asked about the Code he called it "a load of bollocks".)

Hammering home her point, she adds: "It's not just Peter demanding that the business is run in that way. That's certainly far from the truth. You don't know me that well, but I'm very strong and I couldn't work in that environment. I wouldn't be put in the position of being asked to do something that I didn't agree with or I thought was immoral. I wouldn't be able to do that. I'm sure people just see that we don't have non-executive directors, so we don't comply, which is sad really."

Astonishingly, some City commentators are starting to think that Mr Simon might have a point. After all, the retailer, which is branching out from its core India-loving female customer with a new menswear range, is outperforming practically all of its high-street rivals. Last year Monsoon and its Accessorize accessories business delivered a 12 per cent jump in pre-tax profits on sales up 17 per cent to £271.4m. Like-for-like sales flew over Christmas, rising 13 per cent, and "haven't looked back since then", according to Mrs Foster.

You might think that looking after a business firmly in the shadow of the man who founded and ran it for three decades would be tricky stuff, but apparently that's not the case. Another popular myth that Mrs Foster dispels in what is her first ever in-depth interview is that she had to coerce her boss into creating the first chief executive's job in the company's history just to stop her leaving.

On working with Mr Simon, she does at least admit to having been worried. "I remember meeting him for the first time on the King's Road for breakfast. My biggest concern was did he really want someone to come in and run it? He reassured me that he was quite happy for that to happen and he's proven that. He's not into the day-to-day. I don't ever get that feeling that he's breathing down my neck, or that he's restrictive in any way."

On the chief executive issue, which sprung up during the debacle that was the company's move to AIM, the fact that Mrs Foster had been due to quit her then managing director's role at Monsoon for a chief executive's position at Littlewoods prompted some investors to sell up. In what Mrs Foster insists was a coincidence, the same position "suddenly" become available at Monsoon, so she decided to stay. She did it for her daughter, she says, who was just six at the time, not wanting to uproot her to the North-west where Littlewoods is based.

Like Kate Swann, the chief executive of WH Smith, Mrs Foster has a house husband, who looks after the domestic logistics, while she brings in the readies. Fate also played a hand, she says. "Two weeks before this CEO position became available the house that I was buying in the North-west had fallen through."

Whatever the sequence of events, it certainly looks like Mrs Foster has found her niche at Monsoon. With her shoulder-length, highlighted hair, her eclectic jewellery and that embroidered, sequinned outfit, she looks every inch the target Monsoon customer.

The fact that she's one of the very few women running a retailer - she has fingers over on one hand when she counts the others - only complements her consummate retail CV. "My first job was ironing the sleeves of £1.99 blouses. They were all creased because they'd come out of a packet.

"I remember then thinking how much I loved it and how much I loved retail and how much I wanted to do something with it. I never quite thought it would be this," she says, smiling.

CAKES TO CLOTHES

Age: 44.

Position: Chief executive

Salary: True to Monsoon form, the retailer's annual report does not reveal the board's pay.

Education: Leamington Campion High School; lasted one week at catering college before pleading with her parents to let her quit.

Career: Worked briefly at a cake shop, before joining Kendalls, the rainwear chain that became Next once it was acquired by Hepworth. Worked her way up from sales assistant to area manager to regional controller to retail sales director. Left Next after 21 years for New Look, where she was retail operations director. Joined Monsoon in June 2001 as group managing director. Chief executive since September 2003.

Interests: Spending time with her [house] husband and eight-year-old daughter. Likes beauty treatments, spas, dinner parties and reading.

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