Stuart Rose: Fine and dandy

His appreciation for fine fashions helped to rescue M&S from the basket case it had become
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The Independent Online

To your average chattering class housewife, he is the pin-up boy who gave them back their beloved Marks & Spencer. But to the couture crowd who has jetted into London for the start of fashion week, Stuart Rose is a different beast entirely.

For from tomorrow, Rose can legitimately leave his machine-washable, look-what-great-value-it-is M&S suit hanging up in the wardrobe and instead step out in his cherished Savile Row version. For the next six days, the chief executive of Britain's most famous clothing retailer will leave his rows of commodity sweaters behind and embrace the lighter side of fashion as his alter-ego, chairman of the British Fashion Council.

To be fair, his role heading up London Fashion Week (which actually falls twice a year) predates his day job as saviour of M&S. This is his sixth season in the national fashion hot seat and his most exciting yet, given that big names such as Marc Jacobs will be showing in the capital for the first time. It is a job that suits the dapper Rose down to a T. And a lightweight, cashmere T at that. He may shudder inwardly when people bring it up, but the immaculately turned out Rose is renowned for being something of a dandy.

It's the £1,200 bespoke Richard James suits that do it. Not to mention the £100 Hermès ties and the £26-a-pair Fogal socks. Pink socks. "I love colour," he declares proudly when showing off M&S's latest - Technicolour - ranges. Forget the improvements to the retailer's lingerie, or its infamous bargain-bucket jeans; it's the jazzed-up menswear ranges of which he is most proud. Which, to be fair, means that even when not on M&S duty he is in fact happy enough wearing one of the retailer's outfits. At a recent press conference to announce the group's stunning return to form, he grinned like a Cheshire cat while relaying an anecdote about being stopped in the street by a passer-by keen to know the origins of his black moleskin jacket. (It was from M&S.)

Rose's sense of style undoubtedly owes a great deal to his exotic breeding. His grandparents were White Russian émigrés, forced to flee to China after the 1917 revolution. That certainly accounts for his Slavic cheekbones. His family name was actually Bryantzeff; his father, ex-Royal Air Force and a civil servant, changed it.

The country owes a great debt to Rose's inner fop. His eye for detail and appreciation for fine fabrics and fashions helped to rescue M&S from the basket case it had become under his predecessor, a former management consultant who was happier looking at spread sheets than silk slips. It's a rare day that the suave executive doesn't sprinkle answers to any questions from female journalists with questions of his own - and often compliments - about what she is wearing. He likes to guess where a garment is from, and luckily doesn't take umbrage when it isn't one of his 370-odd stores.

Profiles and interviews with him never fail to mention his debonair air. "Think of him as a corporate Pierce Brosnan, the catalogue-model older man, born smooth," one recent piece gushed. Another wrote that his former colleague Terry Green (who in an earlier life pipped Rose to the post of the top job at Debenhams and who now heads Tesco's clothing business) "used to joke that he would do the hard work while dandy Rose could charm the City and look 'pretty in pictures'".

But to dwell on all that is to risk missing the point about what he has achieved back in the hot seat at M&S. Rose was dramatically parachuted in to defend the retailer from falling into the clutches of Sir Philip Green in May 2004, or just plain PG as the billionaire owner of Bhs and Arcadia was known then.

For Rose, who cut his retail teeth at M&S back during its glory days under Marcus Sieff, the homecoming was a long time in coming. Having hit a ceiling as commercial director of the retailer's European division out in Paris in 1989, Rose decided to quit. "I was never a favoured son of the business. I was never one of those people. I sat on the edge of the plate. People couldn't decide if I was half-genius or half-mad," he told one journalist recently.

After stints at the Burton Group, Argos, Booker and Arcadia, which ironically he ended up selling to one PG, Rose had 18 months in retail limbo. Flush with £25m of cash from the Arcadia deal (or £15m after tax), he could indulge his passion for fine wines and flying and could often be found holding court in his home from home, Claridge's, which was where I first met him. Several jobs floated across his path including, with a further dose of irony, the prospective chairman's role at Debenhams, but when the call came from rebels on the M&S board who were anxious for a change of guard, he was happily free.

The 57-year-old takes his job as custodian of the nation's knickers very seriously and has even appeared on M&S's website modelling suits. His barrow boy banter on results days has become a thing of legend in the City as he whips out deal after deal from a travelling salesman-esque sales rail on items you wouldn't believe that the retailer stocked. He said recently: "I would pretty well do anything, including cut my right arm off, for this business. That is how I feel about it. I am the custodian. I just got on the bus and when I get off the bus someone else has to get on and drive it to a better place."

For all the acres of newsprint devoted to Rose the retailer, there is precious little detail about Rose the man. He guards his private life ferociously, but that doesn't stop him from cropping up in the gossip columns. Separated from his wife, with two children in their 20s, the multimillionaire is nothing if not eligible. His regular haunts include his Mayfair private members' club George, where he likes to wine and dine lucky business contacts, and fashionable London restaurants such as the Ivy, the Wolseley or Le Caprice on Piccadilly. And then there is Annabel's, the posh Knightsbridge nightspot.

He was born 17 March 1949, and his early years were nothing plush. His family spent a couple of years living in a caravan in Warwickshire before moving to what is now Tanzania, where his father had a posting with the overseas civil service. He went to a Catholic school in Dar es Salaam until he was 11, when he was sent to Bootham school in York.

His family wanted him to become a doctor, but he never made it to medical school. Instead he wound up taking a job as an administrative assistant at the BBC, before managing to get a place on the highly regarded M&S management trainee scheme. Just one year into the job that would later come to define his life, his personal world fell apart with the death of his mother. She committed suicide. He likes to remember how she used to tell him: "If you want to do something, you can do it. She said, 'Stuart you can do it. Stuart you can do it.'"

Those early African years have stayed with him, however. On being given M&S share options priced at 347p on landing the top job, he pledged to donate any profit he made on them up to 400p to a school in rural Tanzania. The reason he chose 400p was that that was the value per share of Sir Philip's mooted bid that the retailer's board turned down for undervaluing the business.

And last year, after the shares had surged way past the mythical milestone, that is exactly what he did. Eight hours' drive from Dar, in the rural Dodoma district, the Mvumi secondary school became richer to the tune of £500,000. This was more than just petty cash, given that it costs £100 to educate a child for one year. Rose took a brief break from his round-the-clock role at M&S to visit the school last year. "I'm just one of those people who think that if you've got a bit you should give a bit back," he said.

In the eyes of one man at least, a certain Sir Philip, "a bit" is exactly what Rose does have. The Bhs owner, who famously paid himself - via his wife's Monaco bank account - a £1.2bn dividend, never lets the M&S boss forget that initially he invited the then out-of-work Rose to work with him on his takeover bid. Ever since then Sir Philip habitually picks up the phone to Rose's Paddington office to taunt him. "How come you'll work for one year for what I earn in interest in one week?" growls Sir Philip. (Despite a very public falling out - Sir Philip and Rose had a bruising encounter on the pavement outside what was then M&S's Baker Street headquarters - the pair now get along again fine, although it remains to be seen whether Rose gets an invite to Sir Philip's birthday party next month.)

Rose has said he'll stay on at M&S until 2009, but even then it is not clear that he'll manage to let go. Reports last week linked M&S with a possible bid for J Sainsbury. Although the City laughed off the prospect, Rose definitely has big plans yet for the retailer before he's prepared to hang up his hand-stitched boots. Take Europe, for starters. He is itching to get back on the continent with stores that the retailer owns rather than just franchises and thinks his predecessors were fools for pulling out.

Meanwhile, three years into his post at the British Fashion Council, they are showing no signs of wanting to let him go. Hilary Riva, the group's chief executive who first worked with Rose back in the early 1990s at Burton, is keen for him to stay put. "He has improved the status and content of the event. He believes in doing, not talking, and has brought strategic thinking to London Fashion Week."

His role there has been pretty good for M&S too. Witness those adverts with Twiggy, Erin O'Connor, Laura Bailey and Lizzie Jagger. Maybe those housewives have more in common with the capital's fashionistas than they think.

A Life in Brief

BORN 17 March 1949, to Harry and Margaret Ransom Rose.

FAMILY Married Jennifer Cook, 1973; one son, one daughter.

EDUCATION St Joseph's Convent, Dar-es-Salaam; Bootham School (a Quaker boarding school), York.

CAREER Management trainee to commercial executive, Europe, 1971-89, Marks & Spencer; chief executive: Multiples, Burton Group, 1989-97; Argos, 1998; Booker plc, 1998-2000; Arcadia, 2000-02. Non-executive director: NSB Retail Systems, 2000-04; Land Securities, since 2003. Chief executive Marks & Spencer since 2004; chairman, British Fashion Council, since 2003.

AWARDS 2007 Business Leader of the Year (World Leadership Forum).

HE SAYS "I want to please every woman, every time."

THEY SAY "He has an instinct for knowing what people want, customers and employees." - Richard Hyman, retail analyst