Margareta Pagano: Sir Stuart's rosy future will smell as sweet
Sunday 19 September 2010
You know people are really famous when they are known by their first names only; there's Madonna, Wayne, Gordon or Hillary, to name just a few. So it is with Sir Stuart whose reign at Marks & Spencer has turned him into the rock star of retailing and whose new advisory role at Bridgepoint Capital made the headlines last week with his first name only.
There aren't many businessmen who've achieved such an edge, but I saw for myself his glam when we met for lunch at the Wolseley on Piccadilly – on the day his Bridgepoint job hit the press – where he was treated like a minor royal, and where foxy blondes seemed to come out of nowhere to greet him.
More interesting though, is the way he's always sought out by men and women on the street who recognise him and who tell him what a great job he's doing, or, occasionally, tick him off – as Jeremy Paxman so famously did – about the quality of M&S's Y-fronts, or for the extra costs for supportive D-cup bras. As he puts it, everyone thinks they own M&S – and whether they are young, old, fat, thin, tall short, brown, black or white they want M&S to have something for them. No wonder he calls it the NHS of retail; and no wonder he's had some knocks.
Even so, he's satisfied that M&S is in better shape than when he took over the hot spot six years ago. Is he right? On balance, yes: the stores appear to have ridden out the recession well; they sell more clothes in the UK than anyone else, with 12 per cent of the womenswear market, and the food business – which suffered as people saved pennies by trading down the food chain – is starting to pick up again. By continuing to invest in the stores and products through the lean times, the shops now look bright and cheerful. And there have been improvements in the menswear lines, where some of the suits including the £150 Alfred Brown, are a well-designed steal.
But there is still one big weakness on the women's side; by trying to be all things to all woman, and particularly by trying to lure in the high-fashion young, it misses out. I don't know anyone under 20 who wants to shop there for fashion, but I do know loads of women who want to find all the basics; every shape of T- shirt, every style of jumper. Hopefully, his successor, Marc Bolland, will address this.
Looking to the future, Sir Stuart is much more optimistic than his high-street peers and the latest gloomy retail sales forecasts. He doesn't think there will be a double-dip and believes that consumer spending will hold up better than people fear despite the inevitable lift in prices because of more expensive cotton and the VAT hike.
This optimism is based on a belief that the Coalition's cuts aren't going to be as bad as feared and that tax receipts are on the increase. At the same time, most corporates are in fine fettle, having repaired their balance sheets and with cash to spare. Whether they start investing again, is another matter.
But there are other big questions. Should we stop high streets from becoming clones of each other, and how does M&S adapt to online shopping? There'll be new breed of entrepreneurs, he says, who will bring new ideas to the street while shops – even M&S – will have to compete more online. Some brands will take the "experience" route in their outlets like Nike or Puma, while others, like M&S, will have to create a mix of space with more of a showroom for goods with internet cafés to order. But that's another one for Bolland to figure out.
What else is Sir Stuart plannning to do? While he would have loved to write a novel about his time at M&S, he doesn't think he would get it through the lawyers. Otherwise, he's keeping all doors open but one thing is for sure: he doesn't want to be a serial non-executive or an executive chairman – not in the UK anyway. A start-up or a chairmanship – Aviva is up for grabs – are possibilities, but he'd want the job to be fun, and something he has an affinity for. There'll be more pro bono work in Africa and he'll continue with Business in the Community.
Whatever it is though, you can bet it will make the headlines.
Cable is right, this immigration cap is silly – but above all we must reskill UK workers
With his knack for going for the jugular, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has pushed the idiocy of the interim immigration cap to the top of the agenda.
Introduced in July, the cap was devised to stop thousands of unskilled overseas workers flooding the UK market. But at the same time, the Government imposed arbitrary quotas on firms recruiting skilled workers – top scientists, engineers and bankers – who often work here for just a couple of years, or even months. And by introducing the quotas in what's called tier one and tier two, the Government is actually stopping companies from growing because in many cases they just can't find enough skilled British workers – because we don't have them. Tragic, but true.
Here are some of the more extreme examples brought to Cable's attention. The most extraordinary is the case of an engineering firm which needed 500 engineers. It found half of these in EU countries but was only allowed four from outside the area. Cable also cites an investment bank whose overseas staff quota was cut from 100 last year to less than 40 this year. An entrepreneur in a deprived area who wanted 400 people for a start-up but wasn't allowed any. And a US firm based here which wanted a global sales force wasn't allowed one. According to the CBI, the business trade body, there are many more stories where these came from.
Quite rightly, Cable is taking his concerns to Cabinet. While he agrees in principle with the coalition's immigration cap, he believes there are ways it can be adapted so more skilled workers can be allowed in to stop further damage to growth prospects. But the real issue is how to reskill and retool our own workforce – particularly in engineering – so that we don't depend so much on overseas help. Otherwise, those recent observations that we are a "third-world" country may prove to be correct.
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