Marks & Spencer (M&S) has drafted in headhunters to shape a three-way internal contest to become its next chief executive – a process that could see the appointment of the first female boss in the chain’s 137-year history.
Sky News has learnt that M&S’s nominations committee has hired MWM Consulting, a leading search firm, to help benchmark the top three contenders to replace Steve Rowe.
City sources said this weekend that a formal search process had yet to get underway, and that Mr Rowe could remain at the helm for another couple of years.
Nevertheless, the appointment of MWM underlines the fact that Archie Norman, M&S’s chairman, has begun to take a more structured approach to assessing the options for replacing Mr Rowe at Britain’s most famous retailer.
The three internal candidates to take over the role are Katie Bickerstaffe and Stuart Machin, the company’s joint chief operating officers, and Eoin Tonge, who joined 18 months ago as chief financial officer.
One close observer of M&S said that Ms Bickerstaffe was regarded by many inside the business as the likeliest successor to Mr Rowe, although the person acknowledged that that view was “speculative”.
Ms Bickerstaffe became a non-executive director of M&S in 2018, before becoming chief strategy and transformation director two years later.
She ran the UK and Ireland operations of Dixons Carphone – now Currys – and is a board member.
The benchmarking exercise, which is common as part of boardroom succession processes, will lead to a more formal search in due course, with Mr Norman also certain to consider a list of external contenders for the job.
Under Mr Rowe, who joined the company as a 15 year-old Saturday boy in its Croydon branch, M&S has made a determined effort to overhaul its outdated supply chain in order to compete with fast-fashion rivals like Inditex’s Zara and online players such as Boohoo.
He has spearheaded the acquisition of external brands including Jaeger and last month announced the purchase of a 25% stake in Nobody’s Child, an eco-conscious affordable fashion label.
Expectations for M&S’s performance going into the Christmas trading period were – relative to competitors – more positive than they had been for years amid signs that its perennially troubled clothing business has been transformed.
M&S’s stubbornly high-cost base has also been tackled by Mr Rowe, with the pandemic providing him with the cover to cut 7000 jobs.
Numerous rivals, including Sir Philip Green’s TopShop-owning Arcadia Group, have succumbed to the pandemic, with some analysts now talking up M&S’s prospects as better than at any point in the last 15 years.
Mr Rowe also struck a deal to acquire a 50% interest in Ocado’s UK business, with the possibility of acquiring the remaining stake in the coming years.
The turnaround in its performance has inevitably revived takeover speculation, with Apollo Global Management, the private equity investor, reported by The Sunday Times last month to have “run the rule” over M&S.
The absence of any public confirmation implied that there were no live discussions taking place.
Nevertheless, with Asda and Wm Morrison having changed owners in the last 12 months, and continuing bid rumours relating to J Sainsbury, bankers say they would not be surprised to see an offer emerge for M&S.
M&S’s share price has rebounded over the last year, rising more than 60% from its COVID-19 lows and leaving the retailer with a market capitalisation of about £4.4bn.
An M&S spokesperson said: “Every board has succession planning as part of its thinking but we have no formal process in place.”