Greenbury rages at account of his role in M&S's decline

Colleague says of the former chairman that he was 'a brilliant operator but he couldn't innovate his way out of a paper bag'

By Nigel Cope,City Editor
Friday 14 March 2014 04:26

Sir Richard Greenbury, the former chairman of Marks & Spencer, is said to be "hopping mad" about a new book which charts the decline of the high street retailer.

Sir Richard apparently feels the book is a "personal vilification" of him. It is understood that he is feeling particularly bruised as he agreed to co-operate with the book and be interviewed for it.

Entitled The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer, the book, by the business journalist Judi Bevan, is published today. It charts the history of M&S from its origins as a market stall in Leeds to Britain's retail powerhouse and then on to its recent well chronicled problems.

Sir Richard, who quit as chairman two years ago, believes the book is unduly harsh on him. However, he has declined to comment on which of its passages he takes issue with.

It is hardly surprising that the fiery-tempered Sir Richard is unhappy with the book's contents. One former director is quoted in the book as saying of him: "Rick was a brilliant operator but he couldn't innovate his way out of a paper bag."

Another passage says that in the 1990s the company began to drift from some of its founding principles. He is accused of cutting back on running trials of clothing lines, something viewed as essential by previous chairmen. And one store manager recalls being horrified at being asked to put the price up on a line of dresses that had sold particularly well.

"Simon Marks [the chairman from 1916 to 1964] would have blown a fuse," the manager says. "In the old days if a line went well you moved heaven and earth with your suppliers to get more – you never, ever put the price up. But Rick did."

These criticism overshadows the plaudits Sir Richard receives in the book such as his decision to push M&S into out of town retailing for the first time and his eye for detail.

There are revelations such as the attempts by both GUS and Safeway to merge with M&S. The approach from GUS came in 1994 and was given the codename Project Heaven. The idea was to create a giant £20bn retail empire that would span high street stores and mail order together with powerful businesses in the United States such as M&S's Brooks Brothers and GUS's Burberry. The deal was taken seriously by M&S but eventually turned down after opposition from Keith Oates, the M&S director who was to ignite the bitter succession battle by making a play to be Sir Richard's successor.

The Safeway proposal came in 1998 from David Webster, Safeway's deal-making chairman. Worried that Safeway was vulnerable to a takeover, Mr Webster sought a friendly deal with M&S. He wanted M&S to bid for Safeway in a deal that would give M&S greater scale in food and enable M&S to use Safeway's larger stores for its non-food ranges. That deal was seriously entertained by Sir Richard though eventually turned down too after a number of meetings.

It also emerges that Sir Peter Davis, now chief executive of J Sainsbury, was on a shortlist of three to succeed Sir Richard as chairman of M&S. However, he failed to get the top job after appearing less well prepared for an interview. "Peter seemed more concerned about Peter Davis than Marks & Spencer," one non-executive director is quoted as saying. The other two candidates were Jurgen Hintz, an ex-Procter & Gamble director, and the successful candidate, Luc Vandevelde. "It's a pity we didn't go for Peter," says one director who voted for Mr Vandevelde. "He would have been far better than Luc."

The volcanic eruption that accompanied the leadership battle in 1998 is dealt with at length. It emerges that Mr Oates, the then deputy chairman who made a direct appeal to them to be Sir Richard's successor, told M&S's non-executives that Sir Richard had used a private plane at the company's expense to get to Manchester United matches.

Sir Richard was exonerated but it emerged that it was common practice for M&S directors to use private jets from RAF Northolt when it would have been much cheaper to have travelled by a scheduled airline, even with a first class ticket.

Brian Baldock, who took over as acting chairman following Sir Richard's departure, is quoted as saying: "In our view most of the directors had used private planes a little more than they should have done – Oates included. We had warned Rick about it."

When Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth, the former Tesco chairman, was tipped as a possible M&S chairman he apparently wanted to take M&S back to its basics of underwear and knitwear but forget about outerwear. The freed up space, he said, would be used for concessions selling branded goods.

The bid interest from the retail entrepreneur Philip Green early last year is dealt with swiftly. It reveals that he wanted to sell off M&S's overseas interests and put non-competing products in the shops that were no longer profitable. But in return for putting the whole deal together he wanted a bigger slice of the equity than his advisers thought the City would tolerate. "The financial terms were so hopelessly greedy, his own take so enormous. He wanted to be creator, owner and driver," one adviser is quoted as saying.

Recent events have been punctuated by acts of petty-mindedness and bitterness, Bevan says. She reveals that Mr Vandevelde ordered the walls of Sir Richard Greenbury's huge office to be demolished so there was no visible trace of him.

And the portraits of the previous chairman which had adorned the Baker Street boardroom were taken down and returned to their family homes.

The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer by Judi Bevan (Profile Books) is available for £16.99.

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