Kate Bostock walks as M&S hits the buffers – how long will it be before CEO Marc Bolland follows?

For a pillar of the British high street Marks & Spencer has a notoriously wobbly history.

Back in the 1980s it briefly topped £1bn in profits under Sir Rick Greenbury, only to nearly implode as it was undercut by rivals (chiefly long-term nemesis Next) and wasted shareholders’ money buy buying Brooks Brothers for £500m and then did nothing with it, not even a BB button-down in its flagship London stores.

It was rescued after years of stagnation by veteran rag trader Sir Stuart Rose and his team including marketing director Steve Sharp who, with the help of RKCR/Y&R, launched Twiggy and her pals with a slew of big budget commercials.

Then Rose departed, fed up with being castigated for being chairman and CEO, to be replaced (at huge cost) by Marc Bolland (pictured above) from downmarket supermarket chain Morrisons. This looked a peculiar choice at the time, Bolland had no experience in women’s clothing (the M&S core business) although he had served a stint as a senior marketer at Heineken.

Women’s clothing was left in the capable hands of Kate Bostock (left), who clearly didn’t get on that well with Bolland although she had enjoyed her time with suave ladies’ man Rose much more (we’re not suggesting anything other than a professional relationship here). Over the past few years Bostock has been linked with about every big UK fashion job going including becoming boss of online retailer Asos. But she stuck it out at M&S, which she’s probably regretting now that she has been dumped in the wake of falling ‘general merchandise’ sales (down 0.7 per cent annually on a like-for-like basis) and collapsing profits (down £123m to £658m). But she’ll get a decent pay-off.

Now £658m is less than M&S made nearly 30 years ago so something’s still going wrong. Bolland blamed the disaster on ‘stock problems’ (not having enough stuff that people want to buy and too much stuff they don’t) and the weather. Hmm.

It’s unfair to blame all this on Bolland (including the weather although he is Dutch). But it will only take one more set of quarterly bad numbers and he’ll be off. So what’s his survival plan?

Bostock is to be replaced by John Dixon, who runs M&S food. M&S food is doing OK (like-for-likes up 0.6 per cent) despite ferocious competition from Waitrose in particular. But food ain’t women’s fashion.

M&S sells lots of other stuff (menswear chiefly apart from food) but selling frocks and jumpers to women is its core business. Blokes don’t shop at M&S for clothes that willingly, their clothes-shopping partners drag them in.

You have to ask why such a retailer isn’t run by a woman. They also know a bit about food.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.