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Outlook: An outstanding retailer bows out

WAS IT the charms of northern Italy or something else that caused Sir Richard Greenbury to call it a day at Marks & Spencer?

It was while on holiday in Venice with his wife that Sir Richard finally admitted to himself that it was time to bring his reign to a close and severe all connections with a company that had been his life and passion. He was poring over the hundreds of pages the company has prepared as part of its strategic review when it hit him; "Do I want to continue participating in something I am not going to be around long enough to see through?". It didn't take long to decide in the negative.

It may seem cruel to say it, but from everyone's perspective, Sir Richard has undoubtedly done the right thing. Sir Richard is a big man in every sense of the word and could never have been satisfied with the role of non-executive chairman.

Coming to terms with the job of merely arbitrating board meetings and dealing with corporate governance issues is tough even for the most lackadaisical of chief executives, but Sir Richard was a tough, hands on autocrat whose rule and style was absolute. If it was difficult for Sir Richard, it must have been tougher still for Peter Salsbury, the successor as chief executive. That Sir Richard was no ordinary non-executive chairman was evident from his salary alone, which at pounds 450,000 was more executive than non.

To have Sir Richard sitting on your shoulder, tut-tutting and double guessing your every move must have been awkward in the extreme, particularly when so much of what Mr Salsbury has to do is unravel and change what was done before.

Mr Salsbury is Sir Richard's choice of team leader, and the two are great friends, but from where he stands it is going to be much easier to deal with an outsider than someone as wedded and glued to the past as Sir Richard.

Besides being the right decision, Sir Richard's is also a brave one. It is never easy to leave on a low note and from his own point of view his timing could hardly be worse, with the company's share price close to its five-year low. In the City he'll be remembered more for his failings than his achievements, the startling way M & S seemed to lose touch with its customers, the profits collapse and the boardroom row, than the pounds 7bn of profit clocked up under his watch.

By the same token, when M&S does eventually return to favour, as surely it must with a brand as powerful as St Michael, he'll get none of the credit. Yet if he had gone just two years ago the verdict of posterity would not have been more different.

After years of sustained growth, M & S seemed incapable of putting a foot wrong and its press was universally favourable. It is but a small step from outstanding success to arrogance and hubris. Sir Richard may have been guilty of both these latter characteristics, but he should also be remembered for what he was - in his time the most outstanding British retailer of his generation.