Outlook: Marks & Spencer

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The Independent Online
SIR RICHARD GREENBURY, chairman of Marks & Spencer, doesn't take criticism kindly, but he's been getting it by the bucket load of late. What's more, and unusually for M & S, there's been plenty of ammunition with which to bombard him for once.

First there was the mishandled way in which Sir Richard announced that he would be staying on as executive chairman for some years hence. To this day it remains unclear whether this had been formally agreed by the board prior to its disclosure. Whatever the answer, it didn't go down well in the City and it is possible to mark the underperformance in the M & S share price from that time.

In recent months analysts have been repeatedly downgrading their profit forecasts for the group - and with good reason, it now transpires. The overseas expansion programme looks to have been overly ambitious, and with High Street sales now slowing, there's a question mark over the store group's UK spending plans too. Has M & S simply been unlucky with its timing, or is this symptomatic of more deeply rooted problems?

It seems hard to believe that after more than four decades of outstanding growth, M & S is finally beginning to lose its touch, and indeed on one level the cutbacks seem an entirely sensible response to the worsening economic outlook. Sir Richard should perhaps be congratulated for his courage in biting the bullet. Not many chief executives would have reigned in so soon after announcing such an ambitious expansion.

Nonetheless, there are plainly grounds for concern. M & S is usually regarded as a safe haven in troubled times. This time round that's plainly not the case. Costs are rising at a time when sales are slowing and the brand seems to have taken on a tired and stodgy feel.

In the City, the company is coming under pressure to return its excess capital to shareholders, rather than, as in the past, investing it in the business. Sir Richard is also rethinking his "buy British" policy, which has been a cornerstone of past success.

M & S is a big and highly successful company; it's not about to be punched out of the ring. All the same, Sir Richard's remaining years with the company are likely to be among the most challenging of his career. It is perhaps just as well he's not the sort for putting his feet up.

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