OPINION: Rose was a dashing leader. Not any more

One of the truisms of modern times is that the most sure-fire way to boost the reputation of a company is to hook it into the reputation of the chief executive.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

Marks & Spencer's rehabilitation in the public eye was, of course, partly down to it getting the basics right and giving its customers what they wanted after a prolonged disastrous period where it appeared to have lost the plot.

But the fizz in that rehabilitation and the rocket that went under the share price also owed a great deal to the PR of Sir Stuart Rose. He can be notably charming, he gives the impression of being an instinctive retailer, he cuts a dash as a decisive clear thinker and his public, if orchestrated, spats with Sir Philip Green gave him a hard-edged touch.

He appeared so much more colourful and a much more swashbuckling leader than his McKinseyite predecessor Roger Holmes. He was presented as a man people would want to follow.

The trouble was that in many ways it was too successful and there was no way to prepare for occasional disappointment without suggesting that the leader might not be all conquering - which, of course, was not in the script.

So now that the company has lost momentum, the collapse has been disproportionate. Trading figures are flat and there is little tolerance of this, notwithstanding that retail sales are dull everywhere. This is because the Rose image has also taken a serious knock.

He has badly upset the investment community by announcing his intention to move from chief executive to chairman - which flies in the face of best practice governance codes. In doing so, he has reawakened memories of Sir Richard Greenbury, possibly the best merchandiser ever to run M&S but a man whose strengths became the cause of M&S's later woes.

He brooked no dissent as chairman and chief executive, but he failed to put in place a clear structure of succession planning.

It is a curious thing but the talents that make us welcome leaders are the same characteristics that eventually turn us against them - so Thatcher's determination became impossible stubbornness, Major's consensual approach became indecisiveness, Blair's broad church became a lack of belief in anything. Now that Rose's decisive leadership is seen as autocratic, he too has blown it.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard 

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