Outlook: Bold Greenbury deserves some applause

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The Independent Online
Maybe it was because his beloved Manchester United has been knocking in goals by the hatful in recent games. Or perhaps it really was the ambitious expansion plans he has just announced, but the normally cantankerous Marks & Spencer chairman, Sir Richard Greenbury, was looking particularly cheerful yesterday. Sir Richard's usual habit is to swat away questions about M&S like an angry rhino swishing his tail at bothersome flies. Yesterday he seemed only too happy to field as much as the press and City analysts wanted to throw at him about M&S's new "dash for growth".

The sheer scale of what this already large company is trying to do bears some repeating: pounds 2.1bn of investment over three years, 5,000 jobs and a 30 per cent increase in its selling space. It is the most ambitious expansion plan in the company's history, the aim being to transform trusty old M&S into a global brand and business.

But though M&S was making an uncharacteristic splash of its plans yesterday, none of this has happened overnight. In truth, M&S has been gradually pressing down on the accelerator for some while now. When it agreed to pay pounds 192m for 19 branches of Littlewoods, this was its first major deal since Brooks Brothers in the 1980s. This year it has also announced plans to enter the mail-order market for the first time.

Bit by bit it has been dribbled out announcements about new stores, in Germany, Poland and Dubai. It already has research teams in South America and Australia. There are 10 branches of M&S in Hong Kong and the group has been looking at China for some time. Now it is looking at Japan and further expansion in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Is the demand for affordably priced underpants and salmon en croute really so great?

All this global ambition is not without risk. M&S's timing in the Far East, for instance, could hardly have been worse. But for the time being Sir Richard is only to be applauded for the boldness of his approach. Moreover, given that half his new expansion programme will take place in reliable old Britain, rivals must be worried sick.