The end of an empire
The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer
Judi Bevan Profile Books, 269pp, £16.99
This is the story of a very modern, very abject rake's progress in British retailing, complete with hubris, unmerited high living and miracle remedies that don't work. Readers seeking a full history of a great company should recognise that its first hundred years are dealt with here in less than a third of the space available. Notwithstanding the book's title (which in later editions might be amended to The Fall and Fall of Marks & Spencer), this is, in reality, a J'accuse account of the turbulent past 15 years of M&S.
And Emile Zola might be proud, because this narrative races through in a savage pasting of irresponsible men in power, lavish privilege, hapless lower ranks and the betrayal of a once great institution. Judi Bevan's eye for human frailty pays handsomely as she describes how M&S celebrated a century of retailing ascendancy in 1984 - and thereafter plunged into disaster.
As the 1990s pass, M&S degenerates from recession-beating supremacy and suffers an eerie collapse in consumer esteem, led by merciless cost-cutting. Falling product standards prompt accusations that it is "returning to its suburban roots". Suddenly the prize of the previous hundred years of effort - a sublime aura of benevolent certainty which assured generations that M&S unfailingly offered both value and quality - is lost.
Sales implode. The chairman, Richard Greenbury, is universally painted as an impossible ogre who has brought ruin to the company - and is replaced by a new regime under first Peter Salsbury and then the Belgian import Luc Vandevelde. These two design for themselves controversial pay schemes, hire expensive consultants and axe employees, loyal suppliers and harmlessly quaint customs.
Earlier chapters show how M&S progressed from being an immigrant's market stall to a retailing giant. The number of shops trebled. For the next 50 years, M&S basked in the knowledge that it was the mainstay of weekend shopping for tens of millions of families. Its top brass existed in a world of deep-pile carpets, protective commissionaires and private jets. For the company's lower orders, a career was similar to "life in the army". Employees "worked, ate and slept together". The firm's famous paternalism provided staff with not only subsidised meals, but also dental care and chiropody. Its requirement of unquestioning obedience was similarly militarist.
Covering the modern period, Bevan portrays well the capricious multi-sided game of private briefings, public announcements and long-term marketing strategies played by retail executives against not just competitors, but also City analysts and financial journalists. She does, however, blame Greenbury too much, allowing his equally autocratic predecessors to escape largely uncensured. Greenbury certainly cut costs in non-priority shops, but the chain's moribund high street sites were part of his inheritance.
The uniquely fine-tuned ethos of M&S will not return, and the majority of the thousands of careers recently demolished will not be restored. The concern for employees almost anywhere should be that similarly parasitic occupation masquerading as restorative healing might engulf their firm.
For M&S, the recent past has been a post-Thatcher morality tale, an example of breathtaking opportunism as another creaking yet far from broken masterpiece of civilisation is smashed within not years, but months. Such destruction was unnecessary. The company's circumstances had changed, but a competent management could have responded in less brutal, more sophisticated ways. This book confirms how rapidly the achievements of generations can be extinguished by adventurers who would be better located in fictional thrillers than safeguarding the material security of thousands of their fellow human beings.