What's Next as Jones the saviour hangs up his boots?

If you were to tell one of Next's stalwart army of shoppers that the man who built the company into one of the country's most formidable retailers, bringing it back from the brink of bankruptcy along the way, is bowing out today they are likely to assume you were talking about George Davies.

But that probably wouldn't bother David Jones, who has always thrived on his relative anonymity in a sector dominated by larger-than-life personalities. During his two decades at Next, Mr Jones, 63, has had his own personal battles to fight on top of filling a gap in a crowded clothing market place. He has eschewed the limelight; declining requests for interviews and letting others take centre stage at industry functions.

Not this morning. Mr Jones will preside over his final Next shareholders meeting at the Ramada Jarvis hotel in Leicester before handing the chairman's mantle over to his deputy, John Barton. In what is bound to be an emotional occasion, Mr Jones' valedictory speech will close the book on a 46-year career that has seen the "grey, Yorkshire accountant" create one of the most successful clothing retailers of modern times.

Under Mr Jones' stewardship, the stock market valuation of Next has increased by more than 120 times, from a low of £25m to a high of £3.5bn. Today Next has around 440 stores and more than 4.3 million sq ft of selling space. It is one of the few successful mail order retailers to have spawned an equally prosperous internet business and it also has profitable sidelines in such disparate products as furniture and cut flowers.

He has achieved all of this while coping with Parkinson's disease, a debilitating illness he was diagnosed with aged 39.

Mr Jones joined Next when the retailer formerly known as Hepworths merged with Grattons, the mail order business he was then running. Back then, in the mid-1980s, he was number two to George Davies, who was busy trying to carve out a niche for Next somewhere between "Marks & Spencer and Jaeger", as he put it.

Most of Next's high street rivals were home grown - this was long before the Spanish and Swedes took over the high street with their low prices and constantly changing catwalk-inspired fashions. In fact, Next's biggest threat came from within: Mr Davies' over-exuberance meant the group massively over-extended itself, at one point owning such clothing retail anomalies as Eurocamp, the European camping sites operator, and Dillons, the newsagent chain.

Yet the "grey Yorkshireman", as he described himself in his autobiography, saved the day with a no-nonsense, unemotional approach to the business, which lives on in the retailer's fashions. Bit by bit, the group clawed its way out of impending bankruptcy, selling distracting businesses to pay down its crippling debt mountain and shutting extraneous stores. In recent years, Next has thrived while Marks & Spencer has stalled, mopping up a share of the hotly contested womenswear market and expanding into bigger, better located sites. Last autumn it opened its biggest store to date: an 82,000 sq ft giant in the centre of Manchester.

Despite Next's multiple achievements, Mr Jones is stepping down at a crunch time for the retailer. In January, the group reported its worst set of trading figures for years. Although Next hates the City's obsession with like-for-like sales, news of a 8.9 per cent drop on that very basis during the seven weeks to 18 March went down badly with retail analysts. Was Next stuck in the worst sort of fashion no-man's land between a resurgent Marks on one side and a pack of sales-hungry discount retailers on the other, they asked?

Tony Shiret, of Credit Suisse, said: "Next is at a sort of turning point. Their model has become less obviously successful. Because M&S has been in some form of turmoil for most of the past 10 years, Next hasn't been under the same sort of pressure to reinvent itself as other retailers."

This much is clear to Next's management team, who laid out a series of initiatives in March alongside the group's preliminary results. Next week will see a newly refurbished store open in London's Oxford Street and five more will follow by August. If customers like it, expect to see elements of the new design rolled out to its most profitable stores across the country.

Other self-help measures include trimming the range of items on sale at its stores, which are notoriously cluttered and tricky to navigate, and giving greater prominence to best-selling items. It is also going to join the world of fast fashion: it has closed the gap between designing the products and them hitting its stores down to six weeks from three months, which should enable it to react faster to key trends.

Philip Dorgan, at Panmure Gordon, thinks it is still too early to conclude whether Next will manage to go far enough to stem its sales decline. "You either believe the management or you don't. They have a good track record but the jury is still out on whether the perceived problems such as dreary stores and product and not enough difference at lower price points to justify the price premium are genuine threats," he said.

Next's share price has ticked up in recent weeks on hopes that the burst of spring sunshine will have triggered demand for its summer fashions. Deutsche Bank is predicting the group will unveil an improving sales trend from minus 9 per cent to minus 6 per cent on a like-for-like basis. Extending its popular mid-season sale by one day is thought to have helped, as is the boost from a later Easter and Mother's Day, which were not included in the earlier sales period.

Next has one USP compared with its competitors in that its mail order arm is thriving. Strong sales and profits increases at the directory suggest Next's fashions are still popular and that the problem is more down to poor execution of retail strategy and those messy stores. Its success online has prompted it to test the water with a separate electricals website, selling all manner of household appliances.

If the company's sales blip does prove hard to fix, Mr Jones' legacy could end up being tarnished by his decision two years ago to become the first non-executive director at Wm Morrison. The position took up far more of his time than he first thought - he is now deputy chairman - due to the supermarket chain's deteriorating state of health and boardroom squabbles over who should run the group. Mr Jones swears he has not been sidetracked, but for some analysts the coincidence of timing is too strong.

A conscientious approach to succession planning means Next's shareholders can take comfort in continuity. Mr Barton, the deputy chairman, is taking over from Mr Jones. All that remains is for Simon Wolfson, the group's youthful chief executive and Mr Jones' protégé, to adapt to life without his mentor.

Mr Shiret, for one, is willing to bet he'll succeed. "I have a degree of belief in Next. I think the recovery at M&S is very specifically in its opening price point garments. Next still has considerable strength in more formal products. Its problems are solvable," he said.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there