There’s nowhere to hide for Marks & Spencer's shop-floor boy turned chief executive Steve Rowe

 
Catherine Neilan
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The new M&S boss started his career with the group working on the shop floor (Source: Getty)

It was only a matter of time before Marc Bolland left Marks & Spencer, and with his tenure at the retailer nearing six years, many will be asking how he lasted as long as he did.

Under Bolland, times have been tough: general merchandise has been in decline for 17 of the past 18 quarters, while profits have slumped below that of rival Next.

It’s not just clothing that came undone. M&S has suffered hiccups with its e-commerce platform and its international expansion. Yes, food grew from strength to strength – as you might expect under a former supermarket boss – but it was never enough to convince us that Bolland’s “step-by-step” turnaround was not, in fact, more of a stumble.

Some of those issues have now been ironed out, and Steve Rowe inherits a potentially stronger retailer than Bolland did. He also has a breadth of experience that Bolland could only wish for, albeit mostly at one company.

Read more: All you need to know about the man taking over M&S

Plenty of criticism has been levelled at M&S for its lack of retail experience on the board, but Rowe has it in droves, including genuine shopfloor experience, having started his career as a 15-year-old Saturday boy in the Croydon store. He spent years working in branches before he was moved to head office, where he has worked across the holy trinity of food, general merchandise and e-commerce.

He should, therefore, fully understand the many issues M&S must grapple with. The tired store portfolio that puts shoppers off before they have even crossed the threshold, the mismatch with its clothing offer and the women who (used to) shop there, and the need to pick up some of the premium spenders who use it as their supermarket of choice, without alienating its old customers. Quality, an issue identified now two years ago, is still something M&S is yet to nail.

Having been in their shoes, Rowe must also have his ears open to the points raised by those on the shopfloor, many of whom have become frustrated with the old regime.

It won't be an easy job, and after yet another dismal set of sales in GM – the division he currently heads up – there will be no room to hide.

Rowe must identify the problems and fix them quickly, else he risks continuing the decline of a once-great institution.

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