Russell Lynch: Leaked figures mean M&S boss Bolland might need to watch his back

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The Independent Online

Outlook Who's out to get Marc Bolland? If he's got any sense, the Marks & Spencer chief executive will already be knee-deep in a leak inquiry at head office today after being bounced into an embarrassing early release of a desperately poor Christmas trading update. Even though the markets were closed, this sort of thing shouldn't happen at a £5.9bn blue-chip.

On a call hastily arranged after Sky leaked the figures, Bolland said: "One thing that is good about the last three years is we have had a very aligned board and strongly aligned management team. You haven't seen mud and dirt thrown around."

Are you sure about that? There are two broad theories about how the number got out.

The first is that some bright spark in the M&S camp saw that Jessops had gone bust, and decided they would try to bury Mr Bolland's bad news by slipping out the update ahead of time.

This seat-of-the-pants PR strategy is something at which even the cast of The Thick Of It would blanch. In any case, it backfired horribly as the update still made it on to the 10 o'clock news bulletins, and the papers gave it prominent coverage.

There's no way it would have come from Jeremy Darroch, the BSkyB boss who sits on the board of M&S. Because Sky didn't have all the precise numbers, more plausible is that someone near the top has been gossiping – a quiet chat with an industry pal, who ended up whispering to Sky to make mischief with spectacularly successful results. And it would surely have been a credible source to run with the tale.

M&S has survived for 128 years but it is in a bind. The well-paid Mr Bolland – a £15m man no less – has been in charge for more than two years now and the shares have less than trod water.

Steps towards his vision of an "international multichannel retailer", vague when it was set out – have been tentative. In terms of analyst recommendations, the City splits equally for and against: some doubt whether Mr Bolland – a food retailer – has it in him to turn around the problematic general merchandising arm, where he shuffled the management pack last year.

And one name keeps coming up as well – outgoing WH Smith boss Kate Swann, who is available for work this year after an impressive stint turning around the retailer.

In the words of one analyst: "I would love to see Kate Swann in there, having a real go at the cost base. There's more fat to cut out. M&S is like the bloody civil service."

If that kind of sentiment is drifting around the City, you can bet some within the business are thinking along the same lines, particularly when trading is as tough as it is. Mr Bolland should watch his back.