This is not just a new boss, this is the new M&S boss. Steve Rowe, a diehard Millwall fan who joined Marks & Spencer at the age of 15, was today named chief executive of the retailer where he has worked for more than 26 years.
The 48-year-old, who began his career at the company working on Saturdays at his local store in Croydon, south London, has been chosen to succeed current chief executive Marc Bolland and will take the reins in April. His annual salary of £810,000 plus benefits and bonuses will prove to be a sizeable improvement on the hourly rate he earned as a teenager.
“No-one knows M&S better than him,” was the way one retail analyst chose to describe Mr Rowe’s appointment. It is certainly true that his experience ranges from the shop floor – where his first job was in the men’s knitwear department – to the boardroom, where he has been executive director of general merchandise since July last year.
The only other major retailer Mr Rowe has worked for is Topshop, which he joined as a trainee at the age of 18 and swiftly became a store manager. Four years later, frustrated with the lack of career development at the company, he returned to M&S and began rapidly rising through the ranks. Mr Rowe’s father Joe also worked for M&S for a number of years, so when he applied for his first job at the retailer he did not tell his family until he was sure it was his. He worked at numerous branches including London’s Marble Arch before moving to head office, where he did stints in every part of the business including fashion and homeware.
It was when he became head of food – a position that his father also once held – that Mr Rowe began to really make his name. Taking up the position in 2012, he has been credited with re-energising the retailer’s Simply Food concept, which focused on the quality of ingredients and was backed by a celebrated series of alluring adverts which made M&S’s premium dishes the star of the show.
Under his tenure the food division thrived while other parts of the business struggled, and last summer he received the largest bonus of any M&S executive, pocketing £653,000 on top of his salary after a year which saw food revenues grow by 3.4 per cent to £5.2bn. Paying tribute to his efforts, M&S chairman Robert Swannell said he had presided over “the best performance the food business has ever seen”.
As well as his strong track record, Mr Swannell suggested that it was Mr Rowe’s near-encyclopaedic knowledge of M&S that had sealed his appointment, praising his “deep” insight into the retailer and his “considerable knowledge of the business and its people”.
Sources at the retailer were keen to stress that although Mr Rowe was an “insider”, the board had conducted an extensive search outside M&S before making the decision on who should replace Mr Bolland. They added that Mr Rowe was “highly regarded” by management and that his long track record at the company meant he was “very popular” among staff.
Mr Rowe, whose salary will be less than the £975,000 paid a year to Mr Bolland, now faces a difficult task when he takes over from his 56-year-old predecessor, who is retiring after six years at the helm. M&S reported a 6 per cent slump in sales in the womenswear division over Christmas, the latest in a series of disappointing results.
As part of his preparations for taking over, Mr Rowe is understood to be looking at ways of making the retailer’s clothing range more stylish and fashionable. But Nick Bubb, an independent analyst, told the Financial Times “there was no indication of a strategic rethink” under Mr Rowe and that M&S would “need to shrink clothing more aggressively and close a lot of stores”.
Mr Rowe issued only a short statement describing his promotion as a “great privilege”, but in previous interviews he has come across as a stickler for quality whose visits to M&S stores inevitably result in him picking up his favourite items, taking photos of substandard packaging and redesigning shelf displays. It remains to be seen whether this enthusiasm will be enough to rescue the retailer where he has spent so much of his career.