‘I realised I wasn’t a muppet’

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I am sitting in Stuart Rose’s office in Paddington, west London. It is Wednesday morning, the day after Marks and Spencer, on poor form for the past few seasons, stormed the high street with a set of dazzling results.

But the man behind the retailer’s return to good times is trying his best to be nonchalant about it all.

How do you feel about the shares hitting a record £7 high? “It’s just a number on the day,” he says, stroking his navy and grey Hermès tie and fixing me with his “Don’t ask me that question” stare.

Well, you must be delighted that M&S is back on track to hit the £1bn profit mark this year? “Ask me when I get there. But it is just a number, isn’t it?”

Did you just do a little celebratory jig across the room? “No I did not. You can’t write that!” he laughs, clearly enjoying the banter as he waves his arms a little. “Men over 40 shouldn’t dance.”

What else does he want to add to his legacy as M&S’s 10th chief executive? “Don’t use the word legacy!” he snaps, adopting his customary rapid patter. “Do I look like a history book man? No.”

But Rose knows he will be judged for his performance at the helm of M&S. Marks and Sparks is not just a retailer, it is a national treasure, a British institution, an iconic brand. In the mid-1990s it was the UK’s most successful – and snootiest – retailer. But arrogance bred contempt and before long M&S customers were off to Next. A cycle of decline began.

Enter Rose, dropped into the job in a moment of crisis as the retailer sought to fend off Sir Philip Green’s audacious 400p-a-share bid in the summer of 2004. Their fight for control was one of the most prominent bid battles in British corporate history.

And who better to be at the centre of it than Rose, the prodigal son of M&S (he spent much of his early career at the chain) and a some-time celebrity? Debonair Rose, with his Richard James bespoke suits and £26-a-pair Fogal socks – “I wear M&S at least half a week now!”. Rose, with his love of flying, fine art and wine.

He is as likely to be featured in the gossip columns as on the financial pages. I cast my mind back to recent sightings: there was Rose sitting with Lady Ella Windsor at the British Fashion Awards; Rose rubbing shoulders with Victoria Beckham and Sienna Miller at this year’s Anglo­mania ball in New York; Rose popping down to Annabel’s or over to George, his private members club in Mayfair, for dinner. Rose striking a pose with his leading ladies – Twiggy, Erin O’Connor, Lizzie Jagger and Laura Bailey – from M&S’s women’s wear advertising campaign.

When Rose and I normally meet, we do so to talk about profit margins, cost cutting and sales growth. But this Wednesday I am here to talk about what it is like being Stuart Rose, so I read out some of the more outrageous descriptions of him featured in the inch-think pile of cuttings I have waded through that morning.

“Think of him as a corporate Pierce Brosnan, the catalogue-model older man, born smooth.”

“It’s all bollocks,” he exclaims but looks flattered all the same. “I am not smooth, I just think I am me! I know I am polite and I think I am a good listener. I think I have got good manners. If that equals smoothness, I am happy to be smooth.”

But he does play the part of showman with some flair and enthusiasm. Last year he was featured on M&S’s website, modelling suits. It has become a running joke at press conferences to ask Rose if he is wearing M&S underwear. He has almost become public property (yes, he really does sign autographs for the ladies behind the tills and the shoppers when he visits stores).

Does it make him feel loved? “I feel like a bit of a freak show,” he says, eyes wide, hands in the air. “I am very proud of the business but I do feel a bit bemused about all the attention it has generated. Sometimes some bloke comes and undoes your jacket [to reveal the label] and asks if you are wearing M&S. It is a bit much but it is good publicity for the brand.”

Rose may act like a bit of a dandy but behind all the paraphernalia is a determined businessman. “It slightly grates on me that people regard me as lucky. To use the old expression, if luck is making your own luck, I think I have made it.”

After all, Rose, who quit M&S in 1989 to cut his teeth on the outside, made £25m when he sold Arcadia to Green in 2002. Out of a job, he then lobbied obsessively to get his foot back in the door at M&S.

Having finally got back in, after 16 years kicking around Britain’s retailing scene, he worked like a dog to try to put M&S back on the map. This week he delivered the best sales line in the industry, with six-month profits at their highest in nearly a decade. There is a buzz about the brand again, helped by lots of advertising around Twiggy in M&S kit and sexy chocolate puds.

“I would pretty well do anything, including cut my right arm off, for this business. That is how I feel about it,” he tells me (it sounds a bit naff but he seems sincere). “I am the custodian. I just got on the bus and when I get off the bus someone else has to get on and drive it to a better place.”

Rose started out at M&S when he was 23 years old. His upper-middle class parents – he spent his formative years in Tanzania, where his father was a civil servant – were ambitious for him. They wanted him to go to university – his own son and daughter have done just that – and become a doctor. They wanted him to make something of himself. But he never made it to medical school. “I wasn’t academically up to it – I should never have done it. I took the wrong course too early,” he says frankly.

And so he drifted a bit in London, his break coming when he landed a job on the M&S management trainee scheme, having written to 20 companies asking for work.

But soon after he started his new job his mother, Margaret, committed suicide. “People talk about my mother’s suicide as being important in my life,” he says, looking at that pile of press cuttings that argue his mother’s death was the moment when his ambition struck. “It is slightly different to that. My mother was fiercely ambitious for me and she taught me, if nothing else, one thing: she taught me to value myself and my philosophy – that if you want to do something you can do it – that is what she gave me. I think it came from my mother. She said: ‘Stuart you can do it, Stuart you can do it.’”

Rose says he was perhaps a bit too bolshy after that. Some M&S people thought he was arrogant and, as he worked his way through the ranks, he approached a brick wall. “I didn’t do much – how can I put this politely? – arse-licking or kissing. I didn’t manage particularly well upwards. I think the business probably thought I was too big for my boots,” he says, explaining why he quit in 1989 to join Sir Ralph Halpern at Burton Group.

But it was the best thing he could have done. His M&S contemporaries said he would fail and told him he was a fool. “When I did get out it was refreshing, I realised I wasn’t a muppet.”

When he came back to the fold 16 years later he did so with a lot more personal wealth and business sense. “If I hadn’t left, I would never have developed what I call business skills. I didn’t know about balance sheets; I didn’t know about cash flows; I didn’t know anything about anything.”

Now, he says, he is back until 2009 at least. For the next two years he will press on with delivering clothes that women really want to wear.

“I am re-establishing our value credentials,” he says, shoving a red sweater at me. “Here. I could do this for £8, £9 but it wouldn’t be the same. Close your eyes and feel that. It’s beautiful. I can do sandpaper for £8 but I don’t want to.”

And what of that legacy? One thing he will say is that he would like to leave M&S in the hands of an insider if he can. “It is right and proper that the business breeds its own,” he says. “I have to run this and hand it over to someone else – hopefully in better nick.”

He does not know yet who that person is. “It is not an issue to be dealt with today.”

No, today is a day to celebrate that share price he is trying so hard to ignore and he is off to George for lunch (he won’t say with whom).

Into the lift and down to the foyer, he sweeps past the five receptionists with a smile and a tilt of his debonair head. “They’re over £7 now, Stuart!”, exclaims one of the women as he offers a wink. He raises his hand and crosses his fingers as a smile dances across his face.

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