Major institutional shareholders in the struggling high-street giant Marks & Spencer have warned that the chief executive, Marc Bolland, is "in the line of fire" ahead of this week's annual meeting.
Investors told The Independent on Sunday that Mr Bolland, who succeeded Sir Stuart Rose three years ago, faces a pivotal few months as he battles to restore the group's fortunes. Much will depend on how well its autumn-winter collection fares.
On Tuesday, Mr Bolland and the chairman, Robert Swannell, will try to placate shareholders following a particularly difficult few months. Pre-tax profit for the year to March tumbled 14 per cent to £564.3m, an eight-year low that was the result of poor clothing sales, and Mr Bolland has presided over seven consecutive quarters of falling clothing and homeware sales.
"Bolland has been under real pressure since the annual results and people are now searching for evidence for why he should keep his job," said one major investor. "He is drinking in the last chance saloon and the final few months of this year will be key."
A second investor argued: "The progress that has been made turning around the group has been slower than we would have hoped. The chief executive is in the line of fire – some people reckon he has another year. We disagree: the autumn-winter collection is key, otherwise the pressure will be too much."
Although Mr Bolland's overall pay fell by a third last year he is likely to face a storm at the meeting in Wembley stadium over a bonus of £829,000 that was two and a half times greater than last year. He must convince them that spending £2.3bn on store refurbishments, logistics and IT systems as part of a three-year restructuring plan will revive M&S's fortunes.
However, this is an increasingly difficult sell, made worse by analysts forecasting that the company will miss end-of-year sales targets set by Mr Bolland shortly after he arrived. These had already been revised downwards last year.
Last week, David Cummings, head of equities at Standard Life – a top 10 shareholder in M&S – broke ranks to say that Mr Bolland would be "under pressure" if the group's general merchandise sales did not improve.
M&S's autumn collection hits the stores this month. Initial reaction from the fashion world has been positive, although investors and analysts will judge its success in terms of sales, with a trading update scheduled in November.Reuse content