Chris Blackhurst: Fish supper with that scarf, madam? M&S boss faces uphill task

Midweek View: To smash Waitrose at food, Zara at clothes and Net-a-Porter online is well-nigh impossible
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The Independent Online

Shortly before he took over at Marks & Spencer, I toured a Morrisons store with Marc Bolland, when he was still that group's boss.

He was impressive, a chief executive clearly on top of his game, confidently extolling the virtues of Morrisons' twin "freshly-made-in-store" and "value for money" principles. With his background as chief operating officer of Heineken, Mr Bolland clearly knew all about supply chains and distribution systems. He was sharp on pricing, able to deliver fresh bread, pizzas and fish to the customer cheaper than his rivals.

But could he hack it with M&S? It's easy to suppose that the difference between running Morrisons, one of our biggest supermarket chains, and M&S, is slight; Heineken is a beast of an organisation, a true multinational brand. The M&S head-hunters clearly supposed that in Mr Bolland, ex-Heineken, ex-Morrisons, they'd got their man.

However, M&S is not the same as other companies. The stark truth about M&S in the 21st century is that you wouldn't launch such a company now, would you? Selling clothes and food side-by-side in a shop in the centre of a town no longer makes sense. It did once, when M&S was all there was, and parking was not so difficult. But not today, with out-of-town and internet shopping, and firms that specialise in fashion, or sell the sort of upmarket produce that used to be the sole preserve of M&S.

That's its problem: a history that says it must be everywhere and be all things to everyone. The result is a chain that is neither fish nor fowl, hidebound by tradition, unable to tackle Waitrose or Zara head-on.

It should be no surprise that in announcing yesterday's half-year results, Mr Bolland drew attention to the performance of food. Sales in food were up 2.5 per cent, but non-food (mainly clothing) were down 1.5 per cent, marking the ninth quarter in a row they've fallen.

The weakness with M&S's broad sweep is that its head must also be a generalist. But to find someone who is equipped to smash both Mark Price at Waitrose in food, and Amancio Ortega and his successor, Pablo Isla, in clothes at Zara, while also taking on Natalie Massenet's Net-a-Porter online, is well-nigh impossible.

All the rag trade stars I've ever met have been people immersed in the manufacture, display and selling of clothes. Sir Philip Green, for example, can tell the fabric of a shirt or the cut of a suit at a glance and price them in an instant.

I doubt, though, that Sir Philip would regard himself as qualified to flog a salmon dinner for two, complete with pudding and wine, for a tenner. Yet that's what Mr Bolland is expected to do, and much more.

Mr Bolland has now got Belinda Earl, responsible for the turnaround of Debenhams and latterly at Jaeger, to help him. Her first, critically acclaimed autumn/winter womenswear collection was unveiled in the summer and is on sale now.

M&S has thrown everything at making it fly off the rails, splashing out on adverts with Tracey Emin, Helen Mirren and other female celebrities, in a campaign shot by Annie Leibovitz.

Only three weeks of sales of the new range were counted in these latest results. According to Mr Bolland, Ms Earl's efforts have been "well received by customers and there are early signs of improvement".

He has to hope so. As do M&S's hard-pressed investors. Mr Bolland says he's leading M&S on a journey. So far, it's been a voyage of disappointment. He's had nine quarters of declining sales. In football parlance, it's all building up nicely for the tenth.

If Mr Bolland is not to be remembered as someone who travelled well rather than arrived, he has to achieve some better numbers. There is talk in the City of potential suitors waiting in the wings for M&S. It would certainly help the management's task if the company were to be taken private, away from the unforgiving gaze of stock market analysts.

Then they could get on and modernise at will, close the under-performing stores, shake up the ones that remain, and not be so mired by legacy.

The trouble is, it would still require a chief executive who can sell both food and clothing well. That, as Mr Bolland has found out, is an incredibly difficult task.