FOR A man dubbed the "Mr Grumpy" of high street retailing for his famously combative style, Sir Richard Greenbury, chairman and chief executive of Marks & Spencer, was on surprisingly subdued form yesterday. Perhaps it was the drugs.
During his presentation of half-yearly figures for the company, Sir Richard joked that he had taken some Valium to keep himself calm. Even so, there was plenty of colourful language to accentuate the gloom of falling profits and consumer recession. Observers could only imagine what he might have said if he had allowed himself to get excited.
On past form he would have hit back hard at any detractors of either himself or his beloved M&S - the company he has served faithfully from joining as a 16-year-old management trainee and which, now 62, he has run for the past decade. Speculation in the City, however, has recently centred on whether or not he is the right man to continue at the helm. He maintains that he will remain in place until retirement at 65 in 2001.
One theory is that a plan for him to go sooner was shelved when it became clear that the company was sailing into stormy waters. On this view he has been left there to tough it out through the bad times, rather than pitching a new boy into the swell, but be ready to step aside when the prospects brighten.
Only last month, however, the company announced a freeze on all new projects, just a year after Sir Richard unveiled plans for pounds 2.2bn worth of new investment.
While no-one is suggesting that he should have foreseen the global downturn so far in advance - precious few other people did - this has served to knock the image of invincibility that Sir Richard was so keen to promote.
But for a man who it is said, "eats, sleeps and drinks M&S" it is certain that he will not go quietly.
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