A pessimist would have shied away from an interview where they were likely to face tough questions regarding the very real economic struggle their business finds themselves in. But Sir Stuart Rose is no pessimist.
By far and away the biggest draw to the conference was an interview with the Marks & Spencer Executive Chairman. I was extremely enthusiastic to hear what he had to say now that we are in the midst of a credit crunch. Previously, I had witnessed him speak last summer at Marks & Spencer's HO (neighbouring the conference venue; the Hilton Metropole) where he predicted the tough times ahead to his staff.
Unfortunately, Rose couldn't discuss M&S's year performance as it was in "closed period" but speaking in general terms, he didn't bury his head in the sand regarding sales figures and share prices and gave a typical example of the situation M&S find themselves in. Apparently M&S sells 22% of the UK's men's suits (although he was more likely than not Saville Row clad). He explained the company are still selling the same volume, but at a much lower price point. What was originally a £199 suit went to £125, and now is £99.
Giving advice on how retailers should try to get through the recession, he gave 3 points of wisdom, summarized below:
- Stick to your core values. (For Marks and Spencer, this means keeping Plan A central to their strategy, whilst giving value for money).
- Keep innovating. (Rose explained that he believed rate of innovation within a company is directly proportional to the rate of sales)
- And "grit your teeth".
Referring to the recent criticisms M&S has received from particular members of the press, Rose defended himself and the company by stating "If anybody seriously thinks M&S in 2009 is the same as in 2004, they obviously have a poor memory."
When pressed for information of his eventual retirement, he implied it would be in 2011, unless he was no longer wanted before then:
"I've got a sell-by date, like our food."
He summarized the interview with what he hopes to achieve before he leaves Marks & Spencer:
"I'd like to see the business have a clear passage through the slowdown, to have a coherent plan for here and overseas and a seamless and successful transition to new leadership."