The promotions of Stuart Machin and Katie Bickerstaffe announced this week mark a significant step in the evolution of the M&S leadership team.
The pair have been named as joint chief operating officers, reporting to chief executive Steve Rowe. In practice, this will see Machin and Bickerstaffe share responsibility for running the day-to-day business leaving Rowe free to concentrate on developing the strategy he hopes will lead the retailer to future growth.
Rowe has spent much of the past three years driving through the granular changes needed to ‘fix the basics’ of the business as part of phase one of M&S’s three-phase transformation programme. The management restructure marks the transition to phase two – ‘reinvest in the brand and restore growth’.
It’s testament to the hard graft of Rowe and his team, including CFO Eoin Tonge who will take on extra strategic responsibilities following the restructure, that the business is able to move to the next phase of its transformation.
It’s also thanks in no small part to the efforts of Machin and Bickerstaffe. I noted back in 2018 when Rowe and M&S chair Archie Norman tempted Machin away from Steinhoff-owned Bensons and Harveys what a coup it was for the business, Machin having established a reputation as a serious grocery talent during roles at Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Wesfarmers.
Three years later he’s proving what a key hire it was, throwing himself into the challenge of modernising the food business with his trademark blend of determination and charisma.
Food continues to be the engine of growth despite M&S being hamstrung during the early part of the pandemic due to its lack of online grocery presence. That changed last autumn with its new joint venture with Ocado and Machin’s focus on showcasing M&S’s full range of around 6,000 grocery lines and encouraging customers to reappraise its value credentials appears to be bearing fruit.
Machin has also made some shrewd hires during his tenure, notably bringing in experienced commercial director George Wright from Tesco and rehiring April Preston as product development director. This strength in depth should allay any concerns that the performance of the food business will slip as Machin spreads himself more thinly across business functions including operations, property, store development and IT.
Bickerstaffe, meanwhile, will combine her existing leadership of M&S’s digital MS2 programme with oversight of the data, services, clothing and home and international businesses, with Richard Price continuing to lead the clothing and home business as managing director and Paul Friston doing the same for international.
M&S’s online sales grew 34% in the first half of the financial year and although this was reflective of a sector-wide shift to digital channels it also speaks to the progress Bickerstaffe and her team have made in transforming M&S from a business that saw its website as an extension of its stores into a digital-first, market-leading retailer.
A strong and diligent leader, Bickerstaffe was a central figure in the merger and subsequent convergence of the Dixons and Carphone Warehouse businesses.
That ability to drive rapid structural change is one that all retailers will covet as the sector emerges from the pandemic.
Restructuring an executive team always comes with risks attached, but with transformation on the agenda of almost every retailer, now is as good a time as any for businesses like M&S to take the plunge.