Business View: It's elementary: Holmes is on his way out at Marks

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The Independent Online

I was due to have a post-results chat with Roger Holmes last week. He was supposed to call me at 4pm on Thursday. When the phone didn't ring, I checked the news wires and realised that another phone call had got in the way. It was from Philip Green.

The call was made a little earlier than Mr Green had anticipated. The effervescent billionaire had hoped to declare his hand this week. But with five banks and lots of boys from Monaco involved, the secret was hard to keep.

There is one certainty from the Green bid: Mr Holmes will not be running Marks & Spencer for much longer. Even without the Green interest, he was on a sticky wicket. Poor figures, uncertain management, confusing appointments. It all mounted up. Luc Vandevelde's semi-detached attitude to the chairmanship allowed some of the heat to pass from Mr Holmes for a few weeks, but with Luc halfway out of the door, the buck passed back to poor Roger.

And what an abject show he is making of leading M&S. City analysts were astonished by his results presentation on Tuesday. One described it as the worst he's seen from a major company. Another was offering to give Mr Holmes the boot himself.

I predicted Mr Holmes might not be the solution to M&S's problems before he took charge. If you forgive my lack of modesty, I gained this insight after shopping at B&Q, the DIY retailer he ran, on the Saturday before Easter. During one of the busiest days of the year, half the checkouts were closed and many of the items on sale were missing barcodes. Anger and anarchy ensued. I've not been back since.

Mr Holmes' background as a management consultant has not helped. There is this idea that you have to have retail in your blood to run the likes of M&S. I'm not sure this is true. It seems an idea put about by retailers to perpetuate the myth of the trader who can sell anything, from odds and ends on a market stall to Versace couture. But what retailers are good at is making decisions.

To trade out of this mess, M&S needs quick - and good - decisions. The first may be to ditch Roger Holmes and bring in someone who the City may feel comfortable in backing to extract more value out of M&S than Mr Green. Stuart Rose could fit the bill.

How much does he want it?

And what of Mr Green's bid? Will it succeed? Only if he can overcome what is a potentially fatal flaw. Mr Green says he is going to offer shares in the bid vehicle that will be floated on the London Stock Exchange. I can't see this happening.

For a start, he is not comfortable in a public company. I spoke to people who were involved in Amber Day, the last public company he ran. They said he did not believe in boards, accountability or the interests of anyone if they were not aligned to his. I put this to Mr Green and he said this was history. He had changed. He would appoint an independent chairman and follow all board best practice.

The City might buy this. It has an amazing capacity to forgive, as it did with Robert Maxwell. A decade after he was said to be unfit to run a public company, he was back in charge of a public company. We all know what happened.

Mr Green is no Maxwell. He can run companies and does not tamper with pension funds. But in corporate governance, does a leopard change his spots?

Another problem with Mr Green's plan is that he intends to keep his other retailers, Bhs and Arcadia, private. He says the companies compete with each other all the time, and he will be devoting his time to M&S. But if shareholders can object to Mr Vandevelde being on the board of a French supermarket chain that doesn't even compete with M&S, how can they swallow this massive conflict of interest?

Mr Green will have to refine this part of the offer if he is to succeed. Whether he does will show how willing he is to listen and how hungry he is to take over what would be the ultimate prize in British retailing.

j.nisse@independent.co.uk

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