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

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The Independent Online

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.