THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: Sir Richard Greenbury

THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: Sir Richard Greenbury - When the profits of the once-mighty M&S took a dive, so did the reputation of its ex-boss. Media attacks and now a new book on his long reign have left him reeling. The charge: complacent, bullying le

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When the profits of the once-mighty M&S took a dive, so did the reputation of its ex-boss. Media attacks and now a new book on his long reign have left him reeling. The charge: complacent, bullying leadership at the firm he worked at for 45 years. How does he plead?

Sir Richard Greenbury is down but not out. 'I am upset,' he says, narrowing those watery blue eyes, 'and it does get under my skin, but I have got my family and friends and, well, in a few days I will get over it all.'

I wonder. For a man who only five years ago enjoyed a reputation as one of the most admired businessmen in Britain, the past month or so, maybe even the past two years, have been a bit of a shock. Since bundling out of M&S, the company he gave most of his life to, he has watched it split asunder, profits crashing, its good name kicked onto the shop floor. That's one thing. The recent publication of a new book about M&S, and the resultant publicity this autumn that has blamed Greenbury for the company's collapse, is another. It has clearly rocked him to his core.

He is a big man, well over six feet, wide tummy, spreading with age, who would - you might think - be able to take it. After all, as is well documented, he used to dish it out. He was a whirlwind of aggression as a manager, a man who headed M&S for eight years, during which time he took the company to incomparable success, and back. Right now, at 65, he should be enjoying his third year of semi-retirement: a time to help out the four kids who he never saw much when he was working non-stop, a time to concentrate on the 10 grandchildren, too. I'd bet he is a pretty good grandad - just note the extraordinary wooden wendy house given pride of place in his vast landscaped garden at home.

He is also a relatively simple man, easily moved to sentiment and clearly perplexed by the fickleness of the outside world. And by 'outside' I mean, of course, beyond Marks & Spencer, because after 45 years at the company, that is Greenbury's normality.

When you ask him if he felt he was too controlling as a boss, compared to other company leaders, if M&S's culture carried the seeds of its own destruction, if he felt he mishandled other executives or the press or the City, he is not really sure, as he knows no other company so well.

He may have sat as a non-executive director at British Gas and ICI and LloydsTSB, but he was created by M&S, the company he joined at 17, and never worked full-time anywhere else. He loved it and loves it, and is far more hurt by criticisms that he damaged it than most people would understand. It consumes him in a way you or I might believe is irrational.

He agrees to talk to MT because, I guess, he has a lot to get off his chest. He picks me up at the little rural train station round the corner from his Berkshire home. There he is, sitting in his sparklingly clean blue Range Rover when I pull in, his distinctive white hair as spotless as the upholstery. As he drives me off, he is so courteous that I am quite taken aback - I am 45 minutes late after signal failure and missed connections. His reputation for macho intolerance, especially with journalists, is sizable. Perhaps he is now engaged in a little overdue bridge-building.

His home, behind tall metal gates, is a long, low, beautiful house, built in the 1920s, set into a wooded slope with pines and oaks up close, American-style. Round the back, facing south, a wide stone terrace overlooks more landscaped woodland, lawns, swimming pool, tennis court, all discreetly shrubbed. He walks me through the house and its myriad elegant reception rooms. Every room we go in has a stack of framed photos: family and football in his study, Mandela in the hall, royalty in the sitting room. Greenbury eventually perches on a large pale sofa, just left of a con- spicuously placed picture of him shaking hands with the Queen.

It is, perhaps, the decor of someone who likes to remind himself of what has been achieved. Greenbury, the fanatical sports- man who went to Ealing County Grammar, the only child of a Geordie mum and Leeds dad who split when he was a teenager, the short-tempered high achiever who sacrificed his university chances and took a shop job to support his mother. And 40 years later he ended up running the same shop. That takes some drive.

Greenbury looks perturbed, as if he can read my thoughts, keen to move onto his agenda, not mine. I want to know what it feels like to fall so heavily to earth, what lessons he can pass on; Greenbury, that famous square jaw set in determination, wants to run through every item of criticism that has aggravated him since 1999. I can tell he has a list in his mind - he doesn't need paper - as he seems to be counting them off as he goes, fiddling with his fingers, his ferocious capacity for memorising and analysing undimmed by the years.

Much of his anxiety stems from The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer by Judi Bevan. The book, which combines a short corporate history with a vivid account of the in-fighting that led to M&S's post-1998 profit collapse, sits heavily between us like an unwelcome guest. Greenbury is clearly troubled by its genesis. He helped the author in her research, passed on phone numbers of other directors and non-execs to interview, and gave his approval to the project. He then finds the book is a compelling critique of his blinkered management style, replete with unattributable quotes from the same colleagues saying, not our fault, it was all Rick's. 'But I know the people, and they've rung and told me that they spoke very highly of me ...' It's just not, he seems to be saying, fair.

Well, no, life isn't, and sometimes it kicks you where it hurts. The general attitude of most I talk to about this is that Greenbury should count himself lucky for the good years. He earned big money, around pounds 800,000 a year at the end, he enjoyed the plaudits; he should take the brickbats with stoicism. As to the book, how can he have been so naive? Perhaps he could not conceive that any of M&S's current problems were his fault?

He brushes that aside. Of course he made mistakes, he says. In a complex business you do. 'The secret is to make more good decisions than bad.'

He has, however, a counter-argument for every accusation of mismanagement that has been levelled at him: that he quashed debate within M&S, that he resisted innovation, that he bullied subordinates, that he soured relations with the City and the press, that he waltzed off at a crucial time to head a government committee because he wanted a peerage, and that he failed to identify a suitable successor for his own job, partly out of vanity. That is some list, and you can perhaps understand why he is so agitated.

He argues that there were just two real problems towards the end of his time at M&S: that the company, through a series of serendipitous events, had got itself in a position where its success was so great, it simply couldn't keep on at the same level of profitability; and that the board had fatally delayed appointing his own successor. M&S's later reaction to its growing problems, sacking staff, slashing suppliers, just made the situation worse.

The saga of the succession row in 1998 - when finance director Keith Oates publicly challenged the M&S board, asking them to give him the CEO job he thought was already his - remains one of the worst bits of corporate PR in living memory. Greenbury rushing back from business in India, the board suddenly setting up a nominations committee to interview all possible candidates. Analysts remarked that the company suddenly looked like a shambles run by a shower.

So much has been written about it that it barely needs rehashing, and Greenbury has already said he now regrets that he didn't leave the company earlier. But no-one could have foreseen how Oates would later act - 'Who else has ever behaved like that?' - and his real error was leaving it up to the board to find the successor. That, however, is how big companies are supposed to run. 'I always said the board must choose who they wanted to lead them and stuck to that religiously.'

Yet if they were that uncertain as to inside candidates, couldn't they have picked an outsider? Greenbury hesitates. It is known that they approached Sir Peter Davis, now chief executive of Sainsbury, to become chairman, but he didn't impress. Greenbury says another name was in the frame to be CEO: David Jones, boss of Next. 'I discussed David with the board.

He had done a fantastic job at Next, but he was running a pounds 1 billion clothing business; we had pounds 8 billion clothing plus food and household goods. We couldn't see him coming in ...'

A mistake? 'On reflection, as we now know Peter Salsbury was not up to the job, yes.'

Ouch. Greenbury says that if he has learnt one thing from his friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's manager, it is that you do not criticise colleagues in public (what you say in private is another matter, of course). He bends the rule for Salsbury - he is still angry at what he did to the company in his brief reign as CEO at M&S after Greenbury.

And the rest? There is barely space to recount how Greenbury rebuts it all. Suffice to say that he never believed he was terrifying other executives, he never had the time, for instance, to veto individual clothing lines, nor does he think he mistreated the press and the City. Certainly not in comparison to his predecessor at M&S, Lord Rayner, who thought analysts were 'spivs' and wouldn't have them in the building. And he is deeply hurt by the oft-used comment from 'an M&S director' that he 'couldn't innovate his way out of a paper bag'. He has a fistful of examples of all the innovations he ushered into M&S - new shops, new lines, new materials ... I virtually have to say, stop, enough.

As for his time chairing the ill-fated Greenbury committee into executive remuneration, how could he refuse? M&S had a history of working closely with the government of the day, he says, and at the time, 1995, there was no sign of a sales crisis at M&S. Quite the reverse.

The point everyone misses about the Greenbury committee, he continues, was that it made him a target. 'I bitterly regret alienating the press as I did from 1996 onwards,' but, he says, the provocation had become intolerable. 'They tried to get into this house in the boot of a car, they went to every one of my children, my wife was pestered, my ex-wife was pestered. When my daughter got married they sent along reporters and a photographer ... I was incensed!'

But many in the media and the City found him highly abrasive even before then; his frequent letters of complaint to journalists bordered on the boorish. Too blunt, he admits, but that was his style. He 'gave it to people straight', like his great hero, Harry Truman, the one-time retailer who went on to become post-war American president. As for journalists' interpretations that Greenbury was unable to take criticism, that he was chippy about missing out on a full education, that he felt desperately insecure because of his parents' divorce - he too divorced and remarried, only to go back to his ex-wife.

'Much of that kind of psychiatric analysis is just rubbish,' says Greenbury. 'Rubbish! I had to learn to stand on my own feet early in life, but so what? The world is full of successful people who didn't go to university.'

At this stage, I think Greenbury protests too much. Nestling behind his desk in his study, under the collection of Truman books and Manchester United memorabilia, is a long line of videos from the TV series The Sopranos.

The tale of the bulky, befuddled New Jersey mobster, holding his gang together while hiding weekly visits to a psychiatrist, is Greenbury's favourite television pro- gramme.

What am I to make of that? That he understands more about psychological motivation and its insecurities than he is letting on? If so, he is not admitting it. He simply cannot believe that his drive and style, which took M&S to its highest-ever profit level, can have been so misrepresented.

Autocratic, no. A bully, never. Yes, he did push colleagues hard on their ideas. 'But my experience was that when people had the courage to argue their case, they believed in it. Once I had been persuaded, I would put my whole weight behind the policy.'

It is a style he says he learnt off Rayner and Simon Marks, son of the store's founder, Michael Marks, and the real entrepreneur in whose image the empire was built. For if every successful business is a projection of the personality of its key driving force, M&S's systems and style reflected the input of Marks junior, who dominated the company for 50 years.

Marks could be brutal with his immediate management and had little time for outsiders, but was popular with his shop-floor staff - a description that could fit just as well with Greenbury. Yet Marks was alert to good advice. Others in M&S say that Greenbury just stopped listening when the pounds 1 billion profit mark was reached - hence the Oates fiasco - and that his brusquely entrepreneurial style became unrealistic for a complex, 70,000- employee plc.

He is certainly unimpressed by the changes that his successor Peter Salsbury initiated. If the ship had been steadied, he argues, M&S would have recovered from its 1998 sales slump. It had already embarked on a pounds 2 billion expansion programme which, although it dented profits, would have paid off in the long run. 'Every retailer has a bad season, but the trick in retailing is to put it quickly behind you and get back to core competencies.'

Look at Gap, he says, of which he is a huge admirer. 'They have had a bad year. I know they will rebound as certain as I am sitting here. And I am absolutely certain that with a steady hand and core competencies, M&S could have bounced back to pounds 850 million profit.'

But can't he understand the pressure Salsbury was under from the City and the press to make the company more responsive? 'No, he should have stood up to the press and the City. What was the rest of the board doing? My criticism is that he dismantled two of the fundamental cornerstone principles of the business: treatment of staff and relations with suppliers.'

It is no surprise, he adds acidly, that Salsbury couldn't cope, and had to leave. He is careful not to pass comment on Luc Vandevelde, M&S's present chairman, but nods approvingly when I mention the company's new head of UK retailing, Roger Holmes, the former Kingfisher executive.

He likes some of M&S's new range: there are signs of 'green shoots' he says. 'I see them advertising beautiful, classic, all-wool jumpers for pounds 25.' That's what the customers want, he adds, not - taking a dig at Salsbury's TV ads - naked ladies, size 16. Former colleagues tell him many of the old processes are being re-introduced, and Holmes looks as though he has the right feel for the business.

Has he spoken to Holmes? No, he says, but he'd like to. Should old bosses be consulted? Isn't it better to cut the link?

'I kept on Derek Rayner as a consultant. I wanted to be able to go and speak to him. I used to have lunch with him at his home, he used to come here, and I'd take his advice.'

You can tell he would love Holmes to call. He's intrigued as to how the core problems are going to be addressed: getting reliable products made more cheaply overseas, coping with a move away from the old Baker Street head office (and away from M&S's flagship Marble Arch store), sorting out what's to be done about the long tail of small stores that make too much money on food but can't offer a full M&S range. And just from watching the way Greenbury lights up when talking about the kind of products M&S now carries, the blouses, the knitwear, you can see his instincts are still fully engaged.

Does he go into M&S stores? 'I didn't go near one for two years after I left, but I've been into my local one, the Camberley store, about six times this year.' When he sees my surprise, he looks shamefaced for a second, then counters: 'The girls at the Camberley store told my wife they missed me.' And he beams like a beacon at the memory.

It must have been an extraordinary wrench for Greenbury to pull himself away from the company he'd given so much to. As another M&S lifer put it to me, the firm was everything to Greenbury, it had formed him since he was 17, it was the lens through which he saw all, and it made him the kingpin of UK plc.

No wonder he seems so bruised by recent events. He has kept his non-executive jobs ticking over - he sits on the boards of Philips, the electronics giant, and Electronic Boutique, the video games retailer, and is still involved in the Israel-Britain Business Council, an organisation he chaired at John Major's request in 1990s. But otherwise he had hoped to spend most of his retirement basking in the glow of past achievements and watching the tennis and football that he loves.

And now this. It permeates everything. He tells me a story about attending Manchester United's extraordinary 5-3 win over Spurs at White Hart Lane.

Sitting in the director's dining room before the match, Greenbury felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Sir Alex Ferguson, who had left his team talk to give him a hug, and tell him not to let the buggers get him down. Greenbury admits he was choked by the gesture, and recounting it to me while Harry Borden snaps away, I can see his eyes well up slightly.

And that, he says, is what he is going to take from all this - the simple loyalty of friends who have stood by him: Sir Alex, who he adores, the former managers and directors of M&S who still regularly take him out - 'We were only at Wilton's last week; how can others say they hate me?' - the old staff who have written letters of support. He is trying to remain philosophical. 'We build people up, we knock them down,' says Greenbury.

'I honestly believe that you are never as good as you are sometimes made out to be, nor are you as bad as when people start to slaughter you. There's got to be something in-between.'

Yet he seems rather humbled by the experience. Only occasionally do flashes of the old abrasiveness return - when Harry keeps him too long in one pose, for instance - and then he seems to bite it all back. Best behaviour now.

Later, my tape recorder exhausted, Greenbury spent, he drives me back to the station, nothing left to say. His reputation, he feels, has been traduced. Yet surely it is still too early to judge: to see whether M&S has a viable future on the high street, to understand where the root of its decline was buried. I wonder whether it is the company or his own self-worth that he is most concerned about. Maybe that's the point. For Greenbury, the brilliant one-company man, the two are probably inseparable.

< GREENBURY IN A MINUTE 1936 Born in Carlisle, educated at Ealing County Grammar School 1953 Joined M&S as junior management trainee 1962 Trainee merchandiser at M&S head office 1972 Appointed director at M&S 1978 Named joint managing director 1986 Becomes chief operating officer 1988 Chief executive, M&S 1991 Chairman, M&S, later knighted 1999 Retires from M&S Sir Richard Greenbury is a non-executive director at ICI, Unifi Inc USA, Electronic Boutique plc, and a member of the supervisory board of Philips Electronics. He is also a patron of The Samaritans.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today