Vandevelde ready to set heads rolling in M&S board shake-up

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The Independent Online

The new chairman of Marks & Spencer is understood to be planning a wholesale shake-up of the struggling retailer's board as he moves to stamp his authority on the business.

Luc Vandevelde, who joined M&S as executive chairman last month, is believed to feel that the current board is too big and has been irredeemably tarnished by failure. Mr Vandevelde is keen to bring in fresh blood to the executive team to help drive through a recovery programme.

He also feels too many of the non-executive directors have been on the board for too long and are too closely associated with the previous regime run by the then chairman, Sir Richard Greenbury.

"He has to break up a team that has failed," says one insider. "He has been brought in as executive chairman so he has to consider this kind of radical action."

It is not clear whether Mr Vandevelde's plans would include Peter Salsbury, M&S's chief executive. It is also unclear whether Mr Vandevelde agrees with some of the board changes made by Mr Salsbury shortly before his arrival. These included the appointment of Clara Freeman, the former personnel director, as head of stores.

It is thought that Mr Vandevelde is almost certain to axe several of the group's long serving non-executive directors. These include Sir Martin Jacomb, the chairman of the Prudential, who has been on the M&S board since 1991. Sir Ralph Robins, the Rolls-Royce chairman, has been an M&S non-executive since 1992. Other long-time non-executives include Sir Michael Perry, former chairman of Unilever, and Brian Baldock, who acted as M&S chairman following the sudden departure of Sir Richard Greenbury last year. Another casualty could be David Sieff, the last remaining member of the M&S founding families with a seat on the board.

The City would welcome a boardroom shake-up at Marks & Spencer as analysts feel the present board is "lightweight". Most analysts doubt the ability of the current team to deliver a sustained recovery at the group even though most have been impressed with Mr Vandevelde. "He is extremely sharp and will get the measure of his team very quickly," one says. "He won't want his efforts held back by others."

M&S would not comment yesterday on Mr Vandevelde's plans. "I'm sure he's looking at lots of different things," a spokeswoman said. "He has already said change is good among non-executives."

A shake-up at M&S would mirror changes made 10 days ago by Sir Peter Davis, the new chief executive at J Sainsbury. He axed David Bremner, head of UK supermarkets, and Kevin McCarten, stores director.

Mr Vandevelde is currently in New York where he is visiting M&S's Brooks Brothers subsidiary. In Britain he has been touring the stores recording his progress with a Polaroid camera.

M&S's financial year runs until the end of March and the group is due to report its full year results in May. Analysts are forecasting pre-tax profits of £485m, down from £546m in 1999.

It is understood that trading has improved in the key womenswear division. However, the warm spell over the past two weeks has caused sales to soften slightly.

The company has been boosted by a positive response to its Autograph designer clothing collection which has been selling well in about a dozen chosen stores.

M&S has also been trying to improve customer service by stripping out management layers and placing more staff on the shop floor.

M&S's shares have slipped back to 230p, close to a nine-year low, after retail entrepreneur Philip Green backed off from making a hostile bid. They stood at 300p over Christmas an New Year when bid fever was at its height.

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