Marks & Spencer leading the FTSE losers: Why clothing boss John Dixon's departure gives M&S two major headaches

 
Catherine Neilan
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Marks & Spencer: Can anyone turn its clothing arm around? (Source: M&S)
Marks & Spencer is leading the FTSE 100 losers this morning, after it confirmed its executive director of general merchandise John Dixon had quit.
M&S' share price opened down, and has continued to tumble throughout early trading. At pixel time, itwas down 1.3 per cent.
When Dixon took up the role in 2012 it was hoped he could do with the struggling general merchandise division what he had done with food, very much the jewel in M&S' crown.
He picked up from Kate Bostock, whose fashion credentials were not in doubt – she had a brief stint at Asos and is now doing good things at Coast – but who had suffered from something of a personality clash with chief executive Marc Bolland.
Bolland, who was chief executive of Morrisons before joining M&S in 2010, assumed his food whizz could turn his hand to clothing.
But after successive quarters of sales declines (14 in a row, followed by one in growth, before returning to declines again earlier this month) he has failed to do that, and now is leaving, having apparently landed a role as a chief executive of a rival retailer.
This gives M&S two pretty major headaches.
Firstly, and most pressingly, its clothing division. Bolland has staked his reputation on turning this around, insisting quarter after quarter that it was a “step by step approach” that would not happen overnight. Back in April there was a glimmer of hope, but now it seems more a case of one step forwards and two steps back.
Style director Belinda Earl has certainly injected some style into the womenswear business, but as at least one investor at the AGM pointed out, winning over the small world of fashion magazines is not enough to turn an £8.8bn business around.
Secondly, is the question of Bolland's succession plan. Losing Dixon is being viewed by analysts as a pretty major blow.
Espirito Santo's Tony Shiret says: “There are currently a number of potential insider contenders but in our opinion they are all unlikely to be able to do the job. For some it is a question of possibly not being good enough and for some they do not have the full skill-set and would most likely benefit from extended mentoring, maybe by a temporary chief executive if Marc Bolland leaves.”
Head of online Laura Wade-Geary is “unlikely to command wide investor support after the problems encountere with the switch from Amazon to the in-house online platform” last year, he notes. “In theory she should be well positioned but in practice probably not going to get it.”
Group chief financial officer Helen Weir has only been in the role a few months, after Alan Stewart jumped ship to join the even more turbulent Tesco, and would be, in Shiret's view, “too soon” for her to take on the reins.
Earl only works part-time and is unlikely to want more responsibility, given her relatively recent health problems.
That leaves Rowe, who is at best “unproven”.
If he can turn things around, he could stand to gain support from the rest of the board as well as investors to take the helm. But that is a a huge if, given that it has already defeated at least two very capable people.

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