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M&S: the book
Feature: 3/10/2001

The fluctuating fortunes of retailer Marks & Spencer are laid bare in a new book from journalist Judi Bevan. "The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer" discloses clandestine attempts to merge with GUS and Safeway, as well as juicy nuggets about the company's founders and chairmen.

With painstaking research over three years, Ms Bevan pieces together the history of M&S from its time as a penny bazaar, through the glory days right up to its more faded present.

Publication of the book has been rushed to coincide with the launch of George Davies' Per Una collection of M&S women's wear (director-e News 1 October).

The book reveals that talks to merge with GUS got under way in 1994, after an initial approach from GUS in the 1980s was rebuffed, according to a review on BBC News Online. A Goldman Sachs banker involved in the deal "thought the two companies would make such a good marriage that he codenamed the proposed deal Project Heaven", according to Ms Bevan.

The combined group would have created the biggest UK retailer in terms of its share value. However, disquiet from M&S directors and the nervousness of the company's then chairman Sir Richard Greenbury ended the negotiations.

"Project Heaven was mothballed without the shareholders ever knowing how close they came to the pearly gates", writes Ms Bevan.

A possible take-over of Safeway was also called off in 1998 after M&S finance director Robert Colvill recommended the board not to pursue the deal.

Telling detail

Ms Bevan's eye for the telling detail brings her book to life. Earlier she refers to Mr Colvill as "a neat, precise man who could eat a crusty baguette without a single crumb falling on his suit".

Just as riveting are her descriptions of tensions in the boardroom and the idiosyncratic failings of some M&S later chairmen.

Anecdotes abound of Sir Richard's supposed dynamic but overbearing personality. "Greenbury invariably dominated the proceedings, setting the agenda, ostensibly inviting other views while making it all too plain what his were", the book says.

Ms Bevan also goes to town on the "deep-seated loathing" the next chairman Peter Salsbury was said to feel for Sir Richard.

However, there is often repetitious detail - perhaps a sign of Ms Bevan's haste to finish the book before the launch of Per Una. For example, she tells more than once how seniority of the directors after the death of Lord Marks was denoted by the depth of their carpets, the size of their desks and the number of their windows.

Personal lives

The book progresses by following the reign of each chairman - with details of their respective managerial styles and personal lives - through to the present.

With liberal amounts of imagination, she recounts how the talented Lord Marks turns his father's string of penny bazaars into a modern retail chain.

And Ms Bevan tells of how Queen Mary pays a visit to Marks & Spencer in Oxford Street in 1932. "She is reputed to have told her host that it was the most successful shopping she had ever done", she writes.

"After bidding her and her entourage farewell, Simon [Lord Marks] turned with shining eyes to one of his executives, Willie Jacobson, and said: 'Well that wasn't bad for the son of a peddler!' ".

The book's preoccupation with personal foibles and lives of its characters adds to its readability. The breakdown of Sir Richard's second marriage, Lord Marks' enduring relationship with Israel Sieff (later Lord Sieff) and the reported homosexuality of Derek Rayner (later Lord Rayner) provide spice amid the trading figures and the Harvard Business school studies.

Company ethos

She also throws into the mix accounts of the company's ethos, its relationship with suppliers, annual accounts and family trees.

As part of her research, Ms Bevan gained access to Sir Richard, former directors, members of the founding families and staff.

In her acknowledgements, she writes, "I would like to mention the former chairman, Sir Richard Greenbury, who gave generously of his time despite the almost certain knowledge that he would disagree with some of my conclusions".

Certainly, her treatment of Sir Richard does seem overly harsh at times and he is clearly blamed for the retailer's lurch into decline.

A M&S spokesman said: "It is an interesting story and an entertaining read about the past history of M&S, but in the future we are all firmly focused on our priority of business recovery and renewal". He added that 99.9 percent of the book was historical and is "her interpretation of the history".

The end result is a rich and enjoyable account of a company that ruled our high streets for decades and is now struggling to reclaim its place in the affections of the British public. However, there is a sense of anti-climax as the book draws to its close. Like the real story of Marks & Spencer, the tale ends inconclusively.

The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer is published by Profile Books and costs £16.99.
Author: John Gibbon
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