Wednesday 9 November 2016 2:38 pm

Lord Stuart Rose interview: Former M&S boss opens up on the ill-fated Stronger In campaign and his 10,000 bottles of wine

Neil Bennett is chief executive of Maitland/AMO, a founder member of AMO.

Lord Rose of Monewden knows how to do things in style. In the space of a 45-year business career he managed to navigate his way through more boards, bids, bust-ups and blow-ups than seems possible in a single lifetime, collecting a knighthood, then a peerage and a comfortable fortune on the way.

More to the point, in all the years I’ve known him, he’s never appeared remotely stressed, despite the inferno often raging around him.

Over the years Rose is reputed to have amassed a wine collection of 10,000 bottles – “it may be more than that” – all of which, he says, is to drink rather than to make money.

“I have never bought wine as an investment. I’m a drinker, not a collector. I am not one of those fellows who invites you to dinner and lets you look at their wine – where’s the fun in that? I’ve made money out of wine but it’s always been a by-product. I don’t do drugs, I don’t do horses, I don’t do golf, but I do enjoy wine and I like to share it with my friends.”

We’re sitting in the wine library in 67 Pall Mall, where Rose feels very much at home, to discuss his desert island bottles. It’s Monday lunchtime so we have restricted ourselves to a small tasting of three, rather than a full flight. Just as well, really, since Rose’s elegant tastes could have bust the City A.M. budget with a more substantial tasting.

The three desert island wines selected by Lord Stuart Rose

Wine featured early in Rose’s life, although his parents never drank it at home. “I was at a Quaker boarding school in York and Mr Massan owned the shop opposite. He used to sell loose cigarettes to the boys so they could smoke round the back of the bike shed. One day I asked him if I could buy a bottle of wine. It was almost certainly a cheap bottle of white burgundy, and I liked it.”

Rose became a school prefect and took to offering glasses of wine to visitors to his study. Lord knows how this sat with the authorities in a Quaker school, but it suggests the young Rose was developing a certain style even then. After school, Rose’s interest in wine turned into a passion.

“In my early twenties I began to realise there was a direct correlation between the price of a bottle and the headache you had in the morning. I was working at M&S and when I had some money spare I would go to Justerini & Brooks or Berry Bros and buy a bottle of something decent.”

I always knew the referendum was going to be a dirty fight. I was marginalised fairly early on; it was all controlled from the centre and the politicians wanted to stick to what became known as ‘Project Fear’. I don’t regret it, but to be honest, businessmen should stick to business and politicians to politics.

It was then that wine played a key role in his career. One evening in 1975 he spotted a wine competition in the Evening Standard, filled it in and thought no more about it. Months later he took a phone call. He had been picked as a late replacement to take part in a wine tasting competition in a boat on the Thames. He turned up, and ended up winning. His prize was a week’s wine tour of the then Yugoslavia.

On his return, however, things became serious; at that stage he was the assistant merchandiser for women’s knitted tops at M&S, and may have remained in the middle ranks of the once-dominant retailer for years. But his success in the competition had been noticed by the powers upstairs.

“I was summoned to see Henry Lewis, who was then head of foods. He said, ‘I hear you know something about wine, young Rose’. I said I did and he replied, ‘well, we’re starting a wine department and you are going to go in it.’ At that stage in M&S you weren’t given a choice. If I had won a driving competition I would have ended up running the chairman’s car pool.”

So Rose became one of M&S’s first wine bosses, travelling Europe, striking deals with growers and négociants. “They were exciting times. We were the first to introduce one litre bottles and the first to produce generic wines, like the M&S dry white. In our first year we created a £50m business.”

Lord Rose addressing the ill-fated Stronger In campaign

Rose is still an advocate of M&S wines. “They’re fantastic value and really consistent.” His pick is the M&S vintage champagne, which has been supplied to them for years by Oudinot. At £22.50 a bottle (if you buy two or more) it’s an outstanding bargain.

His first chosen wine, though, is rather more upmarket. It is Dom Perignon champagne (we tasted the 2002), which we agreed was terrific. “It was the champagne I always aspired to but could not afford. When I was able to drink it I could immediately taste the difference. I knew it was something special.”

Those times came later in his career, after he was headhunted out of M&S, having run the European business. He went to work for the Burton Group, the high street stalwart that would give rise to Arcadia. His first significant payday came when he was later parachuted into Argos just before a major bid for the company.

He fought it, extracted a significantly higher offer and departed with more than £500,000 for five months work. “Put it this way, I paid off my mortgage,” he says. It also provided him with funds to invest in wine.

“I’ve never turned away from a challenge. At least if you stand up for what you believe in, you won’t live a life of regret for not speaking out. It is better to be punched on the nose than not get in the ring at all.

It was around this time he fell for the second bottle on his list, the Raveneau Chablis. We tried the 2013 Montee de Tonnerre, which is a bit young for him but still a classy drop. “I love old Chablis, one with real bottle age.”

After Argos came Booker, where he merged the business with Iceland and then back to Arcadia, where he sold the business and netted another pay day. After that, his career turned full circle and he returned to M&S, firstly as chief executive and then, to the outrage of critics, as executive chairman.

Despite his success, Rose has fielded a fair share of criticism over the years. Perhaps the hardest battering came this year, when he became chairman of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign. He attracted a hail of abuse from political opponents for being variously out of touch with the campaign and less than visible at key points.

Rose is sanguine about it: “I’ve never turned away from a challenge. At least if you stand up for what you believe in, you won’t live a life of regret for not speaking out. It is better to be punched on the nose than not get in the ring at all.

“They offered the job to two or three others before me. My first, second and third instinct was to turn it down, but there was a certain amount of pleading on the phone and I agreed. I always knew it was going to be a dirty fight. I don’t regret it, but to be honest, businessmen should stick to business and politicians to politics.”

Rose learnt quickly how dirty politics could be when Sky News used a clip of him in a sound check, getting the name of his organisation wrong. “We complained but it was too late.” After that it became clear to him that the politicians wanted to run the entire campaign and stick to what became known as ‘Project Fear’. “They told us they knew how to win these things and it was all controlled from the centre. I was marginalised fairly early on, but I would have done anything they asked.”

Lord Rose with supermodel Lily Cole during his M&S days

Rose says he has deep concerns about the future of Britain and the British economy in a post-Brexit world. But he’s not going to get into the ring again. “Let someone else carry the weight.”

For now he can console himself with his chairmanship of Ocado, which he thoroughly enjoys, and a collection of interests in private equity. And, of course, the occasional bottle of (European) wine.

For his last choice he picks out a 1995 Chateau Haut Brion, a snip at around £300 a bottle, if you can find one. “This is the king of wines,” he says. “I love the fact that Samuel Pepys drank it and it’s been around for centuries. There is something about its consistency and longevity, it has real class and I would recognise the taste anywhere.”

For all his ups and downs, the British business world would have been a much duller place without Rose over the last 20 or 30 years, the retail scene less vibrant and, probably, less profitable. I wonder if there isn’t a big deal or two left in him? He demurs, but I suspect there will be another opportunity for him to one day break open something rather special from his cellar.