“Like slipping your head gently into a noose,” is how one highly eligible retail boss described the prospect of taking on the Marks & Spencer chief executive job under Stuart Rose.
It must have been a shock to Rose’s ego when shareholders balked at the prospect of him taking on a joint role of chairman and chief exec. Such was the outcry that departing chairman Lord Burns was forced to write a five-page letter on why Rose had been handed a promotion.
Investors partly fought back because they want to see blue-chip companies play by the rules, which say listed firms must have good reason to promote a chief executive to chairman. But they also know that the benefits of a powerful chief executive can become a handicap if he is in charge of handing on the keys. Any potential chief exec candidate would find it close to impossible to make radical changes to Rose’s plans while he commands the board.
There are precedents in the retail world for a smooth handover when chief executives have become chairmen. Next certainly handled things with no problem, but David Jones spent years grooming his successor. Sir Ken Morrison, boss of supermarket group Morrisons, also oversaw the appointment of what looks like a successful replacement. But he was pushed into hiring a newcomer by a strong non-exec team.
Meanwhile, in fashion we can see the slow-motion French Connection car crash as Stephen Marks battles on with no strong non-execs to help him. From a family business to a FTSE 100 company, everyone should see the benefits of strong debate and room for new ideas, which an independent chairman can insist on. Even Rose.
Sarah Butler is a freelance retail commentator