You can tell much about a company from the way it parts with senior personnel. In some cases, an announcement is made months before the departure date. Sometimes a credible press release is issued with warm comments from both sides. In other instances, a hurriedly cobbled together statement is shoved out after the event.
This week, to no one’s surprise, we learned that Mark Maidment of Ben Sherman is to leave after 13 years, the last three of them as chief executive officer. Since the acquisition of the 52-old business by New York-based Marquee Brands last month, it has been obvious that big changes will be made to the structure and purpose of Ben Sherman. So existing personnel will be shown the door.
Maidment, also creative chief, told Drapers that this is a good time to depart and the separation is amicable. In its statement, the new owner was courteous and generous: “With Mark’s honest, focused approach and respectful philosophy, he has taken Ben Sherman to the level that encompasses the brand’s inherent DNA and rich heritage… Marquee Brands has acknowledged Mark’s leadership in reinvigorating this iconic brand and thanks him and his team for their contribution.”
Contrast that with the statement from M&S on Tuesday after the surprise news that womenswear director Frances Russell had left the business, with her responsibilities being passed to Jo Jenkins: “We are pleased to promote Jo Jenkins into the expanded role of director of womenswear, lingerie and beauty. She has a wealth of experience, with excellent product knowledge and great customer understanding. Frances Russell has left the business. We’d like to thank her for her significant contribution to M&S and wish her all the best for the future.”
I am not sure the last 20 words will win any awards for sincerity. You can almost hear the exit door slamming behind the former womenswear boss. It seems clear that Russell, who had been with Marks for seven years after a long stint in senior roles at Arcadia, did not fit in with the in crowd being created by CEO Marc Bolland and Steve Rowe, who was recently promoted from heading up food to lead on fashion. Rowe replaced the M&S lifer John Dixon, who made an abrupt exit last month to take up an as-yet-unconfirmed CEO role.
It is widely felt that Russell, like Dixon, had not been happy at the company’s Paddington HQ for some time. Given her considerable experience, she cannot have been impressed with a food guy getting the top fashion job. I am not sure I buy the M&S line that this is about streamlining management. Jenkins, who re-joined Marks from Next two years ago (she did 10 years at M&S before racking up 15 at Next), will now have fewer than two days a working week to devote to each of her huge areas of responsibility. This move looks more like getting rid of an irritant than anything else.
Some time next year we may find out Russell’s pay-off listed in the small print of the M&S report. I suspect that she will take a break for a while then return, possibly to run a smaller retailer or fashion brand. Although some find her management style abrasive, there will be no shortage of offers for such an experienced retailer. Falling victim to office politics at M&S is no longer a blot on a CV.
It will be interesting to see how soon Bolland’s new team can make any impact on the look and performance of M&S fashion. Maybe not until Easter 2016 at the earliest?