Margareta Pagano: Male egos, move over, women are retail's best hope

Female chiefs show they're in touch with shoppers
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The Independent Online

Are we watching the end of the ego on the high street? For the past two decades a clutch of retailers, such as Sir Stuart Rose, Sir Philip Green and George Davies, have strutted their stuff pretty much unchallenged.

Colourful characters such as Sir Philip, whose hiring of the stunning Kate Moss to give Top Shop street cred was a stroke of genius, and Sir Stuart have entertained us while enticing us into their stores when the going was good. They became as powerful as their brands, their antics at work and at play turning them into celebrities. And, certainly until recently, they were very successful at what they did.

But their time is up: the big male ego that brought us the cloned British high street looks increasingly out of step with what people want. Harder times, the rise of online shopping, new and upcoming niche retailers and a far more demanding public are changing the way we buy and what we buy. Shoppers are seeking cheap copies of both the catwalk and the high street – just look at the success of Primark and places such as Bicester Village with their factory- outlet and cheap designer lines. But consumers are also turning to the more individualistic niche brands and away from the familiar faces on our lookalike streets.

Shops like Burberry, Aquascutum, Jaeger and Whistles are the ones to watch. And what's interesting is that they are all run by women. At Burberry, there is the highly talented Angela Ahrendts, who is turning the brand into an international must-have. The same trick is being performed by Belinda Earl, boss of Jaeger, while Kim Winser is waving her magic at Aquascutum. Former Top Shop queen Jane Shepherdson is doing well at Whistles, one of the fashion's more maverick labels, while Natalie Massenet has fashionistas in thrall with her own online Net-A-Porter business.

I'm not an ardent feminist but the rise of so much female talent is fascinating. One reason may be that they find it easier to become successful in smaller chains – and the smaller chains, to their credit, are braver about choosing them. But I think it's because the likes of Winser and Ahrendts are more in tune with what shoppers now want. Too many of the male retailers have taken their eye off the product and the service, turning their stores into property machines rather than fun places to shop. That's why they are hurting as the recession bites.

Even Sir Stuart has seen the light and is nurturing more female talent at Marks & Spencer. The highly rated Kate Bostock is now on the board – and in the running for the chief executive's job – while Helen Low takes over as Per Una's products designer after the departure of George Davies, who created the range for M&S and claimed much of his success came from "smelling a British woman".

The fall of Woolies is a slightly different story, but still one of ego. Woolies went bust last week because it had become a truly abysmal business. Its collapse had nothing to do with the recession and everything to do with appalling management. The shops are tacky and feel sticky, most of the staff are bored witless and often appear witless, while the product range was as muddled as its own pick 'n' mix. Such mismanagement comes down from the boss; it's chief executives who set the tone and they have been derelict in their duties. Investors in Woolies are now wiped out and thou- sands of staff face losing their jobs.

Frankly, if I were a shareholder, I would consider taking legal action. The chairman, Richard North, had the chance to sell the business as a going concern a couple of times but, for whatever reasons, he refused to take up the offer. Even Archie Norman, the respected former Asda boss, tried to suggest bringing in Lazard to rescue the group but was rebuffed.

But the real travesty was that the board had no vision of what Woolies could be, despite being one of the best brand names in the world. The administrators should find a proper retailer to buy the good shops and keep them going – and a woman to run them.

As if things weren't bad enough for bankers, now they're left out of the loop

Bankers, it seems, are losing their power as well as their bonuses.

Over the past few years, London has been the hub of the world mining industry, where big-name bankers have driven deals worth tens of billions, none more so than the masters of the universe at Goldman Sachs – the driving force behind BHP Billiton's whopping bid for Rio Tinto. Yet they were among the last to know that Marius Kloppers, BHP's eccentric gum-chewing boss, decided to throw in the towel last week.

BHP had many banks working on the deal, so it's quite extraordinary that many had little or no warning. If the gossip is right, the board listened to shareholders not fee-gobbling bankers, with several of the biggest investors lobbying hard behind the scenes to persuade Kloppers to drop the deal, as BHP's share price fell like a stone over the past few months.

Even more worrying for mining bankers is the truce Russian oligarchs Oleg Deripaska and Vladimir Potanin appear to have come to over their fierce battle for Norilsk Nickel, with the duo vowing to maintain a public show of unity over the future of Norilsk, in which they both have 25 per cent-plus stakes.

The battle for control grew unseemly, with Norilsk's share price falling 75 per cent since January as a result of what became a rather public spat. The Kremlin, which recently bailed out Mr Deripaska with a $4.5bn loan, is understood to have put pressure on the two to make peace. But, again, the London-based bankers were told at the last moment.

Finally, even though the BHP deal didn't go through, bankers on the case are said to have made $450m in fees. But will the fees translate into bonuses? Many of the banks involved, like Goldman, have made a big display of giving up their bonuses this year because of their respective corporate disasters. Whether they start to pay them again next year will be the thing to watch.