Supermarkets and Mary Katrantzou have all been part of the retail mix for Moira Benigson over 25 years running recruiter MBS Group.
The MBS Group is 25 years old this year. Are you surprised you’ve been in recruitment this long?
I must be quite boring to have done this day in day out. But when you work for such a variety of people life is so interesting. Former Marks & Spencer executive chairman Stuart Rose and former Tesco clothing boss Terry Green came together to my 25th anniversary party and we were screaming with laughter when we saw each other, because the first time we met was at Debenhams and they were buying directors. To think I knew them then and to see what they are now is remarkable. So I’m not surprised it’s been 25 years because it’s as interesting now as it was then.
‘Boring’ is the last word Drapers would associate with you. Each time we meet you’re wearing some cool printed trousers, like the Mary Katrantzou pair you had on recently, or some great shoes. Is that your everyday attire or is it all just for us?
They weren’t Mary Katrantzou, they were Isabel Marant! No wait, you’re right, they were Mary Katrantzou … but that’s how I always dress. I love clothes. I especially love shoes and I love bags. I wore Mary Katrantzou to my party. And red Vivienne Westwood shoes. I especially love to support British designers. My Alexander McQueen scarf with Damien Hirst butterflies is my current favourite piece.
Are you interested in art?
Very much so, and I now work in the arts world. One of our clients is the Serpentine Gallery, where our party was held. But our roots are in fashion. Until 1998 all our clients were in fashion. Then we got Kingfisher, owner of B&Q and Screwfix. I’d never been past Hampstead in north London but nearly died when I had to go to an opening in a retail park. Then we moved into supermarkets and our Sainsbury’s turnaround with its boss Justin King is legendary.
That was the fabulous thing about the party: the mix of supermarkets and fashion designers and consumer goods people.
You clearly have a broad remit, which you thrive on. But which have been some of your proudest placements?
I’m very proud of chief executive Stacey Cartwright and group buying director Anita Barr at Harvey Nichols, because to have a woman chief executive in one of the most iconic brands is not common and Stacey’s wonderful. Going all the way back, putting Yasmin Yusuf into Warehouse. I think Warehouse was one of the reasons why Philip Green bought Sears. I’m proud of Alison Loehnis, managing director at Net-at-Porter. I’m very proud of our track record of placing women.
But I’m also proud of placing Ed Burstell as managing director at Liberty. So in fact, that’s Anita at Harvey Nichols, Ed at Liberty and managing director David Walker-Smith at Fenwick - that’s quite a few department stores.
Placing women in top jobs is obviously important to you. Why?
Because most of the customers across retail and fashion are women. I feel very lucky to have been a woman running my own business and my children have benefited from seeing their mother run her own business. Girls do very well at school. Businesses
need women to make them work better.
If you were going to place Moira Benigson in a role other than headhunter, what would it be?
One of my longest-standing clients is French Connection boss Stephen Marks and every time I make a suggestion he doesn’t agree with, he has a stock phrase: “Moira, stick to your day job.” I think I can do all of them [retail jobs] but actually I couldn’t do any of them. But because I have this helicopter overview I’m quite useful as a sounding board.
One of your traits is that you’re not afraid to speak your mind. So what are your views on the job Marc Bolland is doing at Marks & Spencer and Christopher Bailey taking over from Angela Ahrendts at Burberry?
With Christopher, if he has a very good support team, a very good chairman who is a coach and mentor, the best chief financial officer on the planet and a supportive board, he can do it. I’m all for giving people the opportunity because you never know. Justin [King] is a good example; he’d never been a chief executive before Sainsbury’s. I probably shouldn’t say anything about Marks & Spencer, but I will. Someone once said to me that Stuart Rose would walk into the lift at M&S and when he saw a woman wearing a fabulous dress or skirt, he’d say hello and ask about what she was wearing. Then he’d ask her what department she worked in, ask to see her rail and give his opinion on what he liked and what he didn’t. His passion is product. Marc is a consumer goods marketer. There lies the difference. You have to have a feel for product.
So who should be running M&S?
Oh my god, I’m not sure. But I’d like to see a woman running it.