Outlook: A messy business at Marks & Sparks

EVEN by his own standards, Sir Richard Greenbury, chairman of Marks & Spencer, was in a foul and cantankerous mood yesterday. The analysts were berated first. Then at the briefing for the press, the hacks got it full in the neck. What had really got his goat was that news of his intention to stay on as M&S chairman for another four years until the age of 65 had leaked. The problem was that he had leaked the story himself by writing to a journalist - apropos of something else - boasting that the board had asked him to stay. One's own mistakes are always the most irritating, are they not?

The important issue here, however, is less the manner of the announcement as what it tells you about M&S more generally. Certainly the company has not handled the question of Sir Richard's succession terribly well and it may well be that the board is not acting in unison on this issue. Sir Richard says the board asked him to stay on. Others say no such decision has been reached.

There is talk of Sir Richard splitting the roles of chairman and chief executive, which in these days of Cadburarian correctness would be welcomed in the Square Mile. But even here there is no clear view among directors on whether this would be the right approach. Messy successions do not impress the City, which likes certainty and smooth handovers rather than Kremlinology.

Particularly unfortunate was Sir Richard's choice of Tesco as an example of a company that also had a succession question - the retirement of Lord MacLaurin - but had not been the subject of a welter of speculation about it.

The reason for this is that Tesco handled its succession issue with precision and skill. Everyone knew who the chosen man was well in advance and there was no unseemly jockeying for position. Letting go is always difficult for a business leader of Sir Richard's achievement, but refusal to do so is often a mistake. Does Sir Richard really want to be around when Marks & Spencer issues its first profits warning? It is important for boards to be re-energised by new blood even if - as invariably happens at M&S - it come from inside the company.

All this said, it is hard to fault Marks & Sparks and it is on its excellent record that it must ultimately be judged. The strategy of investing heavily at home and abroad, as well as in home shopping, looks promising even though it might cause a pause in profits growth. It is just a shame that the company is allowing a management issue to cloud an otherwise bright picture.

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