Unease as Oates bids for top spot at M&S

INSTITUTIONAL INVESTORS in Marks & Spencer said yesterday that Keith Oates, the group's deputy chairman, was playing a "high risk game" by lobbying the retailer's non-executive directors for the top job.

One senior fund manager said: "Keith Oates has not so much thrown his hat into the ring as lobbed a pound of Semtex into it."

Mr Oates made his move to establish himself as the logical successor to current chairman, Sir Richard Greenbury, last week after non-executives balked at Sir Richard's apparent attempts to position Peter Salsbury, the managing director in charge of general merchandise, as his successor. M&S insiders say there is "despair" over the way the succession is being handled.

Though Mr Salsbury may be Sir Richard's choice, it is understood that Mr Oates also has his supporters on the board. Some insiders also say that Chris Littmoden, who has been instrumental in turning round the Brooks Brothers operation in the United States, is not out of the running.

Institutions are concerned that Sir Richard, who is known as the dominant figure on the M&S board, is using that position to try to manoeuvre his man into place. "Greenbury shouldn't win just because of the force of his personality but because he has good enough arguments to support his case," one investor said.

The fund manager criticised M&S for not sorting out its structure earlier. "If they had had a non-executive, independent chairman, this would not have happened."

Analysts said the in-fighting only served to underline the problems of the company, which reported a 23 per cent fall in profits last week. One said:

"They look like a rabble. If any of the candidates were any good they wouldn't need to be doing this. It reduces my confidence in the lot of them."

M&S was still clinging to its original timetable yesterday saying it hoped to clarify the succession issue in the spring, but the pressure is mounting for a much earlier decision.

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