On 4 May, highly groomed Dutchman Marc Bolland will enter the minefield that is Marks & Spencer. Adam Leyland outlines the 20 biggest challenges that could ruffle his super-slick feathers
1. Great Expectations
He hasn't even started, but already the knives are out for Marc Bolland. The super-slick Dutchman, who joins Marks & Spencer on 4 May, has come under fire from angry shareholders over the £15m signing-on fee he negotiated.
If he plays his cards right, Bolland could earn a total of £36.25m in the next five years as well as a knighthood, in all likelihood. But if he gets it wrong, pay will not only be a bone of contention, it will be used at all times to beat Bolland for other failings. For let's be clear, failure is inevitable on one level or another, in what is almost an impossible job.
2. The Abraham Lincoln factor
Yes. It may no longer be the UK's biggest retailer, but M&S is the closest retailing gets to politics: everyone has an opinion on what's right and what's wrong with M&S, from middle-aged mums to media commentators (and not just Daily Mail columnists - even Jeremy 'Poor Pants' Paxman); from elitist foodies to elderly pensioners and trendy young fashionistas; not to mention City analysts and their wives.
Like Abraham Lincoln, therefore, Bolland needs to decide whether to "please some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time", because he sure won't "please all of the people all of the time".
3. Refreshing the parts
Bolland's trick with Morrisons was to turn its perceived weaknesses - a limited offer, a supposedly uncompetitive but tightly knit supply chain, and the lack of both a convenience offer and an online presence - into a source of strength.
But achieving the same sense of focus will be far harder at M&S: the range of formats covers high street, out-of-town, convenience, motorway services, online; there are franchise and international operations to manage; the supply chain is notoriously complex (see below); and food, fashion, home and, now, electricals, jockey for position in the corporate and consumer hierarchy. For the former Heineken exec refreshing the parts is just the start; the challenge is to make the sum of the parts greater.
4. Dumping Twiggy?
At the heart of the Marks schizophrenia is its polarised customer base. And nowhere is this more apparent than in fashion. With an ageing profile, can it be a home for the hip, trendy, young crowd who shop at Top Shop?
Or should M&S be a home for the middle-aged, middle classes and - like Twiggy - grow old gracefully with them? To make matters worse, the mass appeal of M&S is "being threatened by rivals such as Tesco, Asda and Primark, taking away clothing sales at entry price points", says Shore Capital analyst Kate Calvert.
5. Identity crisis
It's two years since M&S first introduced grocery brands such as Hellmann's mayonnaise, Marmite and Tetley tea into a trial selection of stores in the north east. Having rolled out the offer across its estate at the end of last year, Sir Stuart Rose has been urging M&S to stock more.
But the issue of brands applies as much to fashion as to food, cosmetics or electricals, particularly if M&S is to attract a younger audience, as experts believe own-label ranges such as Per Una and Autograph aren't cutting the mustard.
"There are many brands," says Robert Talbut, chief investment officer at M&S shareholder Royal London Asset Management, "but people have no idea what they are meant to be or who they are aiming at." Should M&S do deals with iconic household fashion brands like Adidas, or hip brand Super Dry? In embracing brands, at what point does M&S lose its identity?
In the meantime, the innovation for which M&S was once famed has dissipated, say experts. In a recent note the analysts Bernstein criticised M&S for being too safe in its efforts to improve the range: "Little has been attempted in terms of category mix: timid experiments have only addressed electricals (which we don't applaud) and branded food products. But is that all the brand can carry to consumers consumers who see M&S as the best retailer in the country?"
The contrast with the feverish activity of Waitrose is stark. By comparison, the M&S pipeline has looked leaden.
"You only need to look to Waitrose [which notched up a 9% increase in like-for-like sales for the 13 weeks to 26 December, compared with a Q3 like-for-likes rise of just 0.4% at M&S] to see that companies can perform well in a recession," says Evolution Securities analyst Dave McCarthy.
The new Simply Fuller Longer range has been welcomed, but a lot of the improvement in trade recorded this week has been attributed to an upturn in the economy.
It seems almost heresy to suggest there is anything wrong with this commendable and award-winning initiative, but what does Plan A achieve for M&S? Suppliers complain their ideas are "no longer based on quality"; that Plan A is "a distraction", and has given the famously bureaucratic M&S "an excuse to create a whole new level of box-ticking".
The decline in standards may not only be related to Plan A. Suppliers express concern that "corners are being cut to drive down value".
Quality also appears to be a casualty of some health-based initiatives. M&S has led the industry in eliminating additives and reducing salt; but some of the NPD hasn't gone down well with punters.
Take the crisps. On message boards consumers complain of "measly portions of throat-scrapingly dry 'crisps'", "salt levels are too low", and the result of tweaks is "indistinguishable from GM-free turkey-tastic-tasters range". "Poor show M&S," one adds. Where are the premium, hand-cooked chips?
While the supermarkets have thus far been relatively resilient in the face of the recession, without a full-service food offer, M&S has been more exposed to the downturn in discretionary spend. "At M&S you see half-full baskets.
At Waitrose, trolleys are overloaded with shopping," bemoans McCarthy. "Until you can do a full shop at M&S, this will always be the case."
After growing the number of Simply Food outlets at a frantic pace, it wasn't surprising that M&S chose to retrench somewhat, closing 25 Simply Foods and two general M&S stores last January. But the bigger issue is around the long-term future of its legacy town-centre presence.
"These stores are too large and low-density. What's more they are underinvested," says a former M&S executive. "The questions for Bolland must revolve around how he moves customers from in-town food halls to edge-of-town and out-of-town Simply Foods; or how he competes with the new, better convenience retailers - Tesco Express, Sainsbury's Local, Budgens, and the Co-op? Or what to do with the big old food halls to make them exciting and interesting for the next five years?"
If M&S was starting out today, Sir Stuart Rose admitted last month, it would never have been invented: running an upmarket grocery business inside a mass-market retail chain simply doesn't make sense, particularly now that supermarkets have so comprehensively cottoned on to the M&S dinner-party set. One possible solution is to spin off the food arm and turn it into an optional concession.
"This would give M&S more room to manoeuvre and generate some cash," says a former M&S exec. "It allows M&S to move food out of stores it doesn't want or need to be in; while for Simply Food it could merge with Ocado, and build a food business with the gravity and scale that enables it to access brands at competitive prices."
12. Marketing mojo
Under Bolland, marketing at Morrisons entered a renaissance. At M&S it's been stuck in neutral. The 'food porn' ads with their much-parodied 'This is not just...' strap were, for a long time, as absurd as Stella's 'Reassuringly Expensive'.
But at least they were memorable, unlike the latest food ads starring Caroline Quentin with the eminently forgettable 'Just Because'.
Black believes "a wholesale improvement in marketing is required", with recent efforts dubbed "confusing and reactive rather than proactive". A new, upbeat, fashion campaign featuring Dannii, Ana Beatriz Barros and, of course, Twiggy has altogether more oomph, but rediscovering M&S's marketing mojo will require Bolland to clarify and crystallise a compelling and cogent M&S offer.
13. Promotional rescue
In the early days of the recession, Dine in for two for £10 was a huge success, and spawned many imitators. But recent attempts to drive footfall have been "bitty, half-hearted and confusing," says Black. "M&S hasn't created enough reasons to shop, and has suffered because it doesn't sell many brands, which are the prime drivers of promotions."
The notoriously inefficient M&S supply chain also means the shelf life of M&S products is inferior to rivals. And the bread for the M&S sandwiches in the Simply Food stores in Hong Kong is freighted from the UK, even though the products are made locally. Finance director Ian Dyson has been tasked with rectifying the situation, in an ambitious five-year £1bn programme called Project 2020. Shore Capital's Calvert expects the transformation to take the full decade.
Using Amazon's platform, shoppers can buy general merchandise, clothing, wine and a range of food gifts via a white-label M&S website. It's a neat solution for a business that has lacked the IT and logistics wherewithal to implement such a complex and expensive project off its own bat. But it's not a full service offer.
At an investor day last October, Ian Dyson laid out plans, under Project 2020, to transform M&S from a store-based business to a full multi-channel retailer with equal emphasis on online. And Rose confirmed M&S would be developing an online food offer though, tellingly, he didn't put a timeline on the plans.
How will Bolland play it? At Morrisons, despite intense pressure from analysts, he resisted the urge, arguing he couldn't see a way to make money. This time the profitability of an online operation is likely to be dwarfed by other concerns. "There are too many other things to concentrate on," says McCarthy.
Regrets? Stuart Rose has a few. And the biggest, he says, was the day M&S pulled out of Europe. But recent attempts to redress the lack of an international presence have received short shrift from leading analysts Bernstein.
"M&S has taken on board many and very diverse business challenges abroad. Buying up franchisees in the Czech Republic and Greece poses the problem of ROIC. The Indian jv has yet to get off the ground while the launch in China has gone through significant teething problems. This appears like an overambitious agenda with too much complexity. We see over and over again that international success is a matter of focus and critical mass."
Both head of food John Dixon and finance director Ian Dyson coveted the top job. Will they quit? Will Bolland move them on?
The Dutchman has committed not to poach former colleagues from Morrisons. He also demonstrated, at Morrisons, the ability to get the best out of the existing management (his only significant hires were in HR and marketing). And McCarthy believes the pair will want to stick around to see what happens.
"The press always make much more of [the potential fallout from snubbed candidates] than is normally the reality. If a job becomes available and you are ambitious, you will go for it, and if you don't get it you should be disappointed, but there is certainly no disgrace in not winning such a big race, and I don't think Marks & Spencer will see wholesale departures."
18. Sir Stuart Rose
Marc Bolland handled Sir Ken Morrison's transition to retirement with the utmost diplomacy and also used it as an opportunity to learn from one of the greats of grocery retail.
A similar initiation is expected at M&S, with Bolland tapping into Rose's 30 years' experience in fashion retail before he steps down as chairman in July 2011.
But the way in which Rose has clung on to power in a combined chairman/CEO role suggests he may not find it easy to stand aside. In press briefings he has suggested that in the interim he can take care of the fashion side while Bolland fixes the food.
He also suggested that Bolland didn't need to fuss over "whether to pick blue or yellow blouses" or "to worry too much about pricing strategy". Rose should not underestimate the attention Bolland pays to detail, and the control he will want to exert not only over the "big picture" but over the retail detail on which he has been so strong.
As if Bolland doesn't have enough to worry about, M&S is expecting to announce, shortly, the results of a triennial pension valuation, which could see the deficit rise from £521m to as much as £1.6bn.
Dashing and impeccably dressed, Bolland clearly has an interest in fashion, and is a quick study, as he proved when he made the leap from consumer goods sales to grocery retail.
But even with the aid of Sir Stuart Rose for the next year or so, he must learn the rag trade while competing against the likes of Sir Philip Green, Primark, Next, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda at one end; Net-a-Porter, Super Dry, All Saints and other fashion brands at the other.
"If I were Marc, I wouldn't be sitting in my garden right now," says another former M&S executive. "I would be travelling the length and breadth of China."
Food sales up at ‘better value’ M&S (8 April 2010)
M&S confirms Rose departure date (18 March 2010)