Interview: Peter Salsbury - Made to measure at Marks

The Hilary Clarke interview: The new chief may not have the City in raptures, but Peter Salsbury knows M&S inside out and suppliers believe he will drive it forward
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WHEN Peter Salsbury's mum heard he had been chosen by the board for the chief executive job at Marks & Spencer, her first reaction was one of relief. She had been worried her son might lose his job. Mrs Salsbury can be forgiven for misreading the reams that have been written over the past few weeks about the poisonous struggle for a successor to Sir Richard Greenbury at Baker Street. In the end, the board unanimously backed Salsbury, and the other main contender, finance director Keith Oates, was forced to resign, tail between his legs and a pounds 646,000 pay-off.

Salsbury may on the surface appear to be the St Michael lap dog, or at least the pet poodle of the outgoing chairman and chief executive Sir Richard Greenbury who backed his appointment all the way. Yet Salsbury, 49, could well turn out to be the knight in the own-brand suit that steers Marks and Sparks through its biggest expansion.

Salsbury, who started his career with the company 28 years ago as a management trainee, has already shown gritty determination. After all, it's not every day a postman's son from Walthamstow, east London manages to become chief executive of the third-largest retailer in the world.

Educated at Bancrofts School in Woodford and then the London School of Economics, Salsbury has worked in almost every Marks & Spencer department. His last position was as joint managing director with responsibilities ranging from home furnishings to international franchises.

Yet while he knows the company through and through, disappointment was voiced from some quarters in the City and the financial press that Marks & Spencer, which recently revealed its worst results for five years, didn't bring in an outsider like BAA's Sir John Egan to breathe new life into the company.

Salsbury, for one, certainly isn't getting his Y-fronts in a twist over comments in the press.

"I know who I am - and who I'm not - in terms of being known outside this organisation. It's understandable but people will get to know me in time," he says. Indeed, his first act has been to lift the veil of silence from the company that included Sir Richard telling one reporter who requested an interview not to be "ridiculous".

The City may have its doubts about Salsbury but at the plethora of Marks and Sparks suppliers that inhabit the offices around St Michael's Baker Street court there was jubilation.

"It's the best solution. It's a way to make the machine start moving despite what the pundits might be saying about the need for fresh blood," says the managing director of one long-term Marks supplier.

"He's a very serious person who likes to achieve results. He's prepared to listen before making a decision, and once he has he will follow it through. Once they start looking at what M&S needs to do, I think they will come up with what is necessary in terms of how it strides forward," adds the supplier. "Salsbury brings stability and a lot of wide experience," says Robert Clark, a retail analyst, "and continuance of the M & S tradition. I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing." According to Richard Pearson, director at the Institute for Employment Studies, where Salsbury was president until this month, "he's analytical. If things had become difficult he would have asked the right questions beforehand."

Salsbury lives with his wife in south London, is an Eric Clapton fan and an avid Arsenal supporter. He has one 21-year-old son by a previous marriage, currently at university.

He's a softly spoken man who says it's too early for him to reveal his hand. "I've only just been appointed. I had thoughts about getting this job at some point, but even a month ago I didn't think it would be for a while."

That said, he plans to start right away even though he doesn't officially take up the position until 1 February. With the strong pound and the downturn in the UK all taking their toll, it is a bad time to jump into the hot seat. Earlier this month the company reported its first profit decline in seven years. Even Salsbury admits he expects more disappointing results before things get better at M&S.

"We are 110 years old and suddenly we will grow by about 30 per cent over four years," he says. "That's a tremendous pace of change especially as we haven't bought anyone." Much of the 44 per cent drop in first-half earnings was due to the company's expansion plans at home and abroad.

Under Salsbury, we can also expect some shake-up in the way Marks & Spencer is managed. "We can't think about running the company in the same way we ran the company in 1992. Part of that was the decision last year to split the role of chief executive and chairman," says Salsbury. He says he also wants to increase company efficiency and weed out some of the company bureaucracy. Salsbury is quick to stress that doesn't mean fewer jobs, pointing out that Marks has already increased its head count by 3,500 this year. What it means, he says, is that there will be "less meetings, less committees. It's about less cross-checking of decisions". And he insists the change of management style "is not a revolution but an evolution driven by business strategy".

He also hints at taking the company downmarket by asserting that he wants to make the business more competitive by bringing prices down. Does that mean buying even more from abroad, causing more pain to British manufacturers? "One doesn't lead to another but it is no secret we have been buying more from abroad than in the past," he says. He hesitates before answering my question as to whether Marks may start to buy in more non-brand goods. "We have no intention of deleting the strength of the Marks & Spencer brand.

"However, there might be opportunities to work with companies with strong brands we could associate with, especially in areas where we are not well-known." Such as? "Well definitely not lingerie," he laughs. So what? "Other things, like glass and china where there are strong brand names with whom we could cohabit quite comfortably." That would be quite a sea- change in itself for M&S.