Margareta Pagano: Sir Stuart's rosy future will smell as sweet

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst to join a leading e-...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Guru Careers: C# Project Team Lead

£55 - 65k (DOE): Guru Careers: A unique opportunity for a permanent C# Develop...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor