As part of Drapers’ 130th anniversary celebrations this year, we brought together some of fashion retail’s biggest names for a series of unique one-on-one interviews.
Here, Lord Rose and Nigel Oddy began their careers around the same time at Marks & Spencer and have climbed to the top of various UK retailers.
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Both Stuart Rose and Nigel Oddy began their illustrious careers in retail at Marks & Spencer. Rose joined as a graduate trainee in 1971 and stayed until 1989, when he moved to the Burton Group as chief executive. He rejoined M&S in 2004 in the top job, and became joint chairman four years later. Oddy, former chief executive of House of Fraser and current CEO of The Range, began his 38-year retail career on a children’s sock counter at M&S in Warrington, later holding senior roles.
Rose was knighted in 2008 and took a seat in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer in 2014. In addition to stints at M&S, Oddy and Rose share a frank outlook and lifelong love of retail. They meet at a private member’s club in London’s West End to discuss the importance of being your own person, the fast pace of retail and the Brexit vote.
Nigel Oddy: So, Stuart Rose, or, to call you by your official title, Lord Baron Rose of Monewden …
Stuart Rose: You’re about the only person who can pronounce Monewden!
NO: I’m delighted to be given the chance to interview you. You became a life peer in 2014 and I’m intrigued to know the connection with Monewden.
SR: It’s quite simple. When you choose a title, they ask you where you would like to be ‘of’. I’m a bit of a mongrel; I’m not from anywhere. I was born in Hampshire, spent a year or two in Warwickshire and then went off to Africa, then to Yorkshire and London. The only place I’ve felt in my recent life that I could call home is where I’ve got a cottage, and I’ve got a cottage in a place called Monewden [in Suffolk].
NO: Aren’t there only about 120 people in Monewden?
SR: About that. Nobody can pronounce it and nobody knows where it is.
NO: We first met 35 years ago. If I remember correctly, you were an executive at the food group at Marks & Spencer and I was the departmental manager of the food hall at M&S’s Marble Arch store. You’d come down to the food hall every Friday and give me hell, and ask about my figures. That job was one of my first lucky breaks. Taking you back in time, what was your first job in retail and why did you choose it?
Photographer: Benjamin McMahon
SR: I always say that the reason I went into retail is because I was too stupid to do anything else. I’m the son of immigrants; neither of my parents had been to this country before they were 17. There’s an immigrant mentality that you go into a profession and my mother was convinced I’d be a doctor. I did go to medical school for a year, but I didn’t like it and I wasn’t very good. I left and wrote to 25 companies saying I was looking for a job. The first, and in fact only, company that replied was M&S. I was a management trainee on £1,250 a year and that was my first job in retail.
NO: So, from trainee to CEO and chairman of many companies, what were the significant moves?
SR: In truth, Nigel, I always say to people: don’t plan your careers. I know people in all sorts of businesses who come from lots of different disciplines: languages, chemistry, physics. The second thing I say is do the job to the best of your ability and people will notice you. I never planned to be a chief executive: it’s hard work, it’s exhausting, there’s a lot of sacrifice involved and every business only has one.
NO: Who were your mentors along the way, and what sort of advice did you get?
SR: Very little! You know what M&S was like; you were there a long time. It’s quite a political organisation: you’re in or you’re not, and in truth I was never really ‘in’. I was slightly on the edge, never quite sure if they were going to get rid of me. I was labelled as a bloke in a bit of a hurry.
NO: I couldn’t comment …
SR: I think the truth is that you have to be your own person. You are who you are and people like you or they don’t like you; you’re Marmite or you’re not.
NO: I’ve always been my own person and I always will be. As you’ve just said, people either like it or they don’t like it. What’s the point in being someone that you’re not? You’ll get caught out. Your career has spanned many years and a lot has happened, including infamous fights on Baker Street [Rose and Sir Philip Green had a run-in after Green’s bid to take over M&S failed]. What have been your greatest achievements and disappointments?
SR: Without being falsely modest, I don’t regard any of it as an achievement. I am most proud of surviving. I am being honest: I had no clue I would ever be a chief executive. I had no clue when I first left M&S and I was shown out of the door. You never look at it and say, ‘Oh, aren’t I clever.’ I was lucky. Opportunities came my way. I wasn’t stupid and I took those opportunities. I worked hard, blagged my way through and it’s all worked out.
NO: Looking at what’s happened more generally in retail, what do you think have been the biggest changes?
SR: It goes back to why I’ve enjoyed it so much. I am one of those lucky people – and I think you’re probably the same, Nigel – who likes change.
SR: Change is one of the things some people don’t like. They get up every morning at the same time and do everything in the same order. I’m quite the opposite: I like the idea of waking up in the morning and not knowing where I’ll end up. If you like that, retail is right up your street, because it is constantly changing. In the old days, there was just one thing to concentrate on; now there are about 15.
NO: When I was a departmental manager, all I had to worry about were my competitors. Now you have to worry about online vs offline, pureplay vs multichannel …
SR: Or what you don’t know about yet. You don’t know what’s going to come out of the ether tomorrow morning. You’ve got to have eyes on the back of your head, your finger on every pulse and be up on every single thing.
I was slightly on the edge, never quite sure if they were going to get rid of me. I was labelled as a bloke in a bit of a hurry
NO: The pace is what makes it exciting. If you can’t cope with that pace, you shouldn’t be in retail. There’s a different kind of immediacy now, because I remember I used to get taken to buy clothes for the season ahead. Now it’s about buying for tonight. It’s about saying, ‘I’m going out tonight. I need to get an outfit.’ With all of this, where do you think the future of the high street lies?
SR: Shopping isn’t going to go away, going out isn’t going to go away. Nobody wants to sit in front of a screen all the time; people want to touch and feel.
NO: The buzzword at the moment is about digital disruptors: where do you think it’s all going to lead?
SR: People used to say the customer is king. Well, the customer isn’t king; they’re master of the universe. They want what they want, when they want it, how they want it, and they don’t want it at the price you’re charging them. They want it for the price they want to pay. I still get a buzz when I go to a good shop. Apple does it well.
NO: Nike Town on Oxford Street is like that for me. I went with my son recently. You’ve got to have something different in store from what you do online and create that experience.
SR: There will always be a strong discount trade because those customers know what they want, which is to buy it at the best possible price. In that middle ground, which everyone says is dead, I think a combination of the best service and the best knowledge can serve you very well. If you look at the best days of M&S, they had decent product made with decent fabric that made women look and feel good.
NO: Can I just touch on Brexit?
SR: If you must!
NO: It’s an interesting one. You played an important role in the Remain campaign, which obviously wasn’t successful. Looking back now, what’s your view on it?
SR: It was a difficult year personally and it was a good lesson. Everybody has opinions but nobody would get up and say something. Do I regret that we lost? Of course, because I think it’s a very bad move. I was asked at the time what would happen when we first came out and I responded honestly – which I got beaten up by my own side for – that nothing would happen for the first couple of years.
The price of fish has gone up, literally and metaphorically, because the price of the pound has dropped. People are sitting with their hands in their pockets and saying, ‘If I don’t need it, I’m not buying it.’
NO: I think you’re absolutely right.
SR: I hope I’m wrong but I think in five years people will be disillusioned and there will be some blame.
NO: You’re obviously still very active. What are you involved in at the moment and what are some of your future challenges?
SR: I’m not married any more, my children are grown up … when you get up in the morning and you’ve read the paper and had a coffee by half past eight, what do you do? I don’t have a dog, I’m too old to chase girls, so what do you do? If you’re fit – and I’m pretty fit – you might as well go to work. I’m chairman of Fat Face with Anthony [Thompson, chief executive], a non-executive director of Ocado, and I do some advisory work with HSBC and with the private arm of Li & Fung.
I’m lucky now. I don’t need to work but I still get a buzz from it. I have four rules: I don’t work with you if I don’t like you; I don’t work with you if I don’t like what you do; I don’t work with you if I don’t understand what you do; and I don’t work where I can’t make a turn. Those boxes have to be ticked.
- You can read all the “In conversation” interviews in our limited edition 130th anniversary book
Lord Rose and Nigel Oddy on their routes to the top