What goes around comes around. Three years after he was elbowed out of the demerging Burton group, retailer Stuart Rose has finally won back the job he always wanted, running the high street store business Arcadia. Chains like Burton Menswear, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Miss Selfridge, Principles, Top Shop, Warehouse - they're all his.
To say he is pleased would be something of an understatement.
Striding around the plush sixth floor at Arcadia's Oxford Street base, smartly dressed in his Richard James suit and silk tie, the ever-neat, ever-charming Rose, 51, looks like a man who has found home after a particularly hazardous journey. He positively beams out of his round, hazelnut face, shooting his smart cuffs, pouring coffee, leaping round the room doing impressions of what it was like, as a young manager, to be caught on the floor of M&S by Lord Sieff with jacket unbuttoned.
He talks about his childhood, his parents, his grandparents' Russian roots, his time at Burton, his banishment to Argos and Booker, the challenge at Arcadia, the career disappointments, the money he's earned, his aeroplane, anything. He's shifting engagements ('I'll meet him at The Avenue, 7pm'), just so happy to be back and chat about it and sink into it like a warm bath - I virtually have to edge my way out the door after two hours saying: no, no, enough, thanks, got to go.
And everyone is happy for him. The top-floor secretaries are pleased as Punch that he's back, the managers who remember him from the first time around are glad they have got someone they know, the non-executive directors are chuffed that they have a man who claims he only ever wanted one job in his life: running their business. All this, of course, is before Rose takes any tough decisions on the fate of the lossmaking group, sacking people, selling stores, axing brands. And he's going to, oh yes, he is going to; but you know what people are like, for now he is Mr Popular, back on double the salary, and it's only right to let them all enjoy it.
It is hard to find anyone who would begrudge Rose his moment of fulfilment.
Ask those who have worked with him. Rose has always been a well-liked boss. Considerate without being obsequious, stylish without being a dandy, a ladies' man without being a flirt - 'He always notices what you are wearing, and compliments you,' says a female colleague, 'you can tell he loves clothes.'
If that makes him sound like a fluttering couturier, it should be pointed out that he is equally at home in the company of men, using the kind of muscular management vocabulary where the four-letter expletives recur with disarming frequency. In fact, you could imagine Rose running a particularly tough-talking Savile Row tailor's shop, where he would be the first to tell you your pinstripe was 'crap' while selling you an even more expensive version. His old Burton mate Terry Green, now boss of BHS, describes him as 'nice, charming and ruthless'.
He'll need all those qualities and more for the task in hand.
Arcadia, demerged from Sir Ralph Halpern's old Burton group three years ago, hit the buffers last year, announcing a pounds 152 million loss on a near-pounds 2 billion turnover. Despite being the second-biggest fashion retailer in the UK and pursuing an aggressive growth programme devised by Rose's predecessor John Hoerner, the group has singularly failed to make its size count.
Critics have been quick to itemise the flaws: the store chains cannibalise each others' sales; moves into internet sales and catalogue shopping have yet to bear fruit; too many stores, too many brands, too many routes to market, a lack of cohesive management.
But what are the solutions? If Rose merges the shop brands he's still got too many stores. If he sells, who's buying? Rivals M&S and BHS have their own problems, and every retailer is worried about consumer confidence.
If he closes shops, there are expensive leases to be bought out. Then there are all the employees, 1,800 in head office alone, 29,000 in all.
So, what's he going to do?
'I am doing exactly what you've done: I am working through the alternatives,' smiles Rose. Then he pitches himself some questions, his favourite oratorical style.
'Can one man run 15 brands? No. Am I better off with a pounds 2 billion business making no money or a pounds 1.5 billion business making some money? The second. Is it better to expend management energy on bigger businesses with bigger earning potential, rather than on small businesses that might explode? Yes. Now, we've got the best young women's business in the country in Top Shop. We also own Miss Selfridge.
Why do we want to own it too? Because John bought it with a basket of other bloody businesses. Why the f*** did we buy it? Good question!'
At this point it is worth remembering that Rose, the slim, compact charmer, and Hoerner, a chunkier, crop-haired American, have something of a history.
Rose stomped out of the Burton group in January 1998 when it split into two entities, Debenhams and Arcadia. The split, devised by Hoerner, put Rose's colleague and rival Terry Green in as boss of Debenhams, while as boss of Arcadia, Burton's old multiple stores operation - many of which Rose headed - it put in Hoerner...
Rose says he only found out about the move when he ran into some merchant bankers outside Hoerner's office days before the announcement As a senior executive he was hurt and angry to have been left out of the loop, and he also questioned the logic of the split, which seemed more likely to benefit the top staff (nice new salaries and incentives) than the shareholders.
But three into two didn't go, and he went.
So imagine his glee at returning to recast Hoerner's strategy, after Arcadia's board said time up. No, no glee of course, because we are all professional here, but it has a lovely whiff of soap opera. And guess what? The flamboyant Green, who Rose still suspects knew rather more about what was going on than he let on, has left Debenhams after three very successful years to head up Arcadia's flagging rival BHS. And M&S, Rose's alma mater, where he started his business career, is on the skids.
It is all neatly set up: old rivals re-armoured, scores to be settled, final scenes to be written. If Rose gets it right at Arcadia, there are no prizes for guessing where retail experts expect him to finish (M&S - keep up).
Things didn't always look so good for Rose. The past three years have been a rollercoaster of emotions for him. Having left Burton's in early 1998, he was then, he says, offered the top job at WH Smith, only to have the offer withdrawn the next week after the board seemingly changed their mind and appointed an internal candidate, Richard Handover, instead. To complete his misery, someone leaked the Rose-passed-over story to the newspapers.
'In the space of a month I had been ejected from Burton and rejected by WH Smith. It was a very difficult time for me,' says Rose. But he refused to roll over. He sat in an office lent by a friend and hit the phones, keeping contacts, trying to drum up work. 'I learnt something about myself then,' he says, 'that I have the resilience.' He also learnt who his close friends were. 'But I don't bear any grudges, I have a short memory. If you really upset me, in a week's time I will have forgotten.'
After months of putting himself about, he was offered the top slot at Argos, brought in to defend the company against a bid from GUS. It was a job with a catch. 'Did we think we could win, day one? Not a hope in hell. Did we think we could win midway through the defence? Absolutely.
Was it a tough battle for Lord Wolfson (GUS boss)? Yup, he had to up the price. Did shareholders get pounds 400 million more? Yes. Did I earn my corn? Yes.'
Around pounds 540,000 for a five-month stint, in fact. Rose, for all his warmth and gregariousness, has never been one to undervalue his services. And then he was asked to turn round Booker, the debt-burdened wholesale giant.
'I told them, I don't know anything about wholesale,' he shrugs, 'but they said, we're sure you can do it.'
He cleaned it up, turned it round, helped merge it into Malcolm Walker's Iceland. Then after committing himself to the new group's future, he left to join Arcadia. Walker was furious, and painted a picture of Rose as a good-time Charlie, reluctant to work from Iceland's Cheshire base because it didn't have a Harry's Bar he could hang out in. Rose, you see, with his fancy suits and debonair demeanour, has a reputation as a London high-liver.
Rose grins. 'Yeah, that was Malcolm having a bit of a...' He pauses and thinks about what he is going to say before deciding caution is pointless.
'Well, you're right, you know, you can be buried alive in Chester at 4 o'clock!' And he laughs, loudly. 'The reality was, I was offered this job at the time of the merger, turned it down, and told them I was not available till later in the year.'
In fact, he told the Arcadia non-executive who sounded him out last spring that it was the only job he ever wanted. So the Arcadia board waited.
And Rose left Booker, with more cash in pocket, when he felt the newly merged outfit was ready. By the time of November's Booker Prize dinner, the literary awards bash sponsored by the wholesaler, Walker and Rose were glad-handing the celebrities together, even though Rose had privately told the Iceland boss he was off, and they were barely talking. Rose says it was 'like having a row with your wife before a dinner party - you have still got to be nice to the guests, haven't you?' Walker, who quit the Iceland board in January, declined to return my call.
And so Rose arrived back at Arcadia, this time with renewed determination and a new right-hand man in tow, Charles Wilson, a former Coopers consultant who stuck with him at Argos and Booker and previously worked for Terry Green. Wilson, says Rose, now provides the analytical groundwork to underpin his more 'intuitive' approach. Green says that shackling Wilson, a hard-driven number-cruncher with a good head for strategy, is the best move Rose has made.
But reappearing with your own hard man, that must have raised eyebrows?
Rose leans forward conspiratorially. 'What is interesting is that people here think I haven't changed, but I have been gone three years. I am not the same Stuart Rose, I have changed a lot. The other side of the coin is that nothing has changed here. Same people, same offices, same brands, just a few more... I'm sure some people see Charles and I as very threatening, but there's one thing I have told them - doing nothing here is not an option.'
There is an edge to Rose that only those who work directly with him experience first-hand. Wilson says Rose is unusual in a retail sector stacked full of tyrannical managers in that he will encourage rather than terrorise.
'He's a very direct manager, he lets people know when he's unhappy and he likes to build consensus among his executive team.'
But another friend says if you cut through the charm you will find 'wires of steel' underneath. Rose himself agrees that he is probably a bit of an outsider, never quite fitting in wherever he goes. 'Yeah, I think I have built a little bit of a carapace around myself.' Tellingly, he worries that he is the sort of person who has 'a lot of acquaintances but very few friends'.
What motivates him? Rose says it is simply money and success. He likes his expensive lifestyle, the nice house in Westminster's Smith Square, the country pile in Suffolk, the Rockwell Commander plane he flies from Biggin Hill, the fine wine collection, the jaunts to Barbados and France, the eating-out at the best restaurants and clubs. Even though he has already amassed more cash than most do in a lifetime, and his two kids are nearly grown up, he says he couldn't possibly afford to stop work. Later he confesses that he is terrified of running out of money.
'I've always worried about money,' he says frankly. He got that from his parents - from an early age he learnt to lie about what things had cost so his mother didn't fret too much.
And if much of Rose's recent business career could fit neatly into an episode of Blood on the Carpet, so his upbringing and family background could have been lifted from a Catherine Cookson mini-series. His father's parents were White Russians who fled to China after the 1917 revolution, his uncle died of opium poisoning, his father was taken up by a Quaker spinster teacher who educated him in England, his mother was born in Egypt to cotton traders of Scottish/English/Greek extraction. One grandparent ended up in Paraguay, another in Argentina.
After spending the war in the RAF, Rose's father - who had changed his name from the original Bryantzeff - married, worked as cost accountant, then joined the overseas civil service and took wife, daughter and baby Stuart to Tanganyika (now Tanzania), returning to England in 1961. He sent his son to the same Quaker boarding school he went to, a decision that Rose says was a mistake, as the fees impoverished the family and the place never motivated him to do much work. Consequently he skipped university and, bolstered by a pounds 3,000 inheritance from the same Quaker spinster who had virtually adopted his father, hit the bright lights of London at 20. That infuriated his mother, who had set her heart on her son becoming a doctor - immigrant insecurity, shrugs Rose, she wanted the blanket of respectability.
But young Stuart was too busy cultivating his expensive tastes. 'I spent the whole inheritance dining out in London in a year. I was in the Mirabelle first time round, the Gay Hussar when it was a famous restaurant, I spent money like there was no tommorow.'
He tried a job at the BBC, didn't like it, and when the money ran out wrote to a host of companies offering himself for work. Marks & Spencer was the first to reply and to make him an offer. He joined and spent nearly two decades there, working his way through the hierarchy, helping set up key departments such as food and wine. If that makes it sound like a smooth progression, it wasn't, he says. He had no great ambition at all until the event that jolted him more than any other in his life: when he was 24, his mother committed suicide.
'You ask if anything shaped my life. It was that. I was a merchandiser at M&S, very happy-go-lucky, I didn't take my career seriously. I think I came into work the following week and thought, f*** this, I am really going to get on in life.'
Much of what he has achieved since, perhaps, is about belatedly proving to her that he can perform at the highest level. But just as he initially flouted his parents' expectations, he eventually ditched his M&S ambitions too. Despite loving the place like a second home, he felt he never quite fitted in. 'I think they thought I was a bit arrogant and a bit cocky,' he says. He was offered a job by Halpern, whose rapidly expanding Burton group was beginning to split at the seams. Despite his M&S indoctrination - 'outside was very much for the hobgoblins and Burton especially so' - Rose leapt at the chance.
What did he find?
'Amazing, the place was a pile of shit. I remember saying to a friend: 'Do you think if I told M&S I was ill for a couple of days they would just have me back?''
Then, after waiting for someone to tell him what to do, he realised he was just being left to get on with it. He did, and found he loved the freedom. Working closely with Hoerner and Green, he set about rebuilding the group's fortunes post-Halpern, eventually heading Evans, Burton Menswear, Dorothy Perkins and Principles, and proving himself especially adept at reviving tired brands. Along the way he learnt a host of skills M&S never taught him: property acquisition, bottom-line profitability, firing people ('At M&S people just disappeared round the back, like at the Lubianka').
And were the rumours of the old '80s Burton culture - flash cars, sharp suits, wild parties, five-times-a-night bonking in the boardroom - correct?
Rose grins and, as usual, frames the question in his own words. 'Was there a culture where Ralph had an eye for the girls? Well, I would probably quite like to have been part of it but I suspect I was two years too late, I missed the apogee. But Ralph has been much maligned. He is a hugely talented retailer, hugely charismatic.'
Not that Rose has had an uncomplicated private life. Like his parents, he married young. He later split from his wife, but is now back together with her. Don't make too much of all that, he pleads. 'During the time I wanted to be ambitious, she couldn't understand why I wasn't coming home at 5pm to see the children, and I can't tell you why I was like that, but I was.'
He is still ambitious, of course, but better balanced, controlling the conflicting urges to work hard/play hard with a surer hand. He is on good terms again with Hoerner, who helped ease him into the new job, and still sees Green, now pitted against him at BHS. 'People think Terry and I don't like each other, but we get on like a house on fire. Terry will admit to me over a glass of wine, as he did last Saturday, that at one point he was trying to screw me, but I knew it was happening, and you just get on with it.'
Green, feeling the hot breath of competition on his neck, is rather sharper about Rose, stating baldly that his friend is a great manager, but the jury is still out on whether he can 'cut it as a trader', even if he does have a 'fabulous front'.
'I used to say to Stuart, let's run our own company, I'll do the hard work and you can be the upfront man, do the lunches, do the analysts and look pretty in the pictures.'
Adam Broadbent, Arcadia's chairman, is clearly tickled by the rivalry between them, but snorts when I relay Green's criticism. 'The task of the chief executive is to run and manage the business, not trade, and this is a huge and complicated business,' he says. Green's Parthian shot is that he doesn't expect his friend to spend more than two years, tops, at Arcadia, then he'll be off to M&S.
Really? Let's nail that, says Rose, and then he does anything but - simply stating that he has enormous residual affection for M&S and loved the people there.
Then again if Rose gets it right at Arcadia, he will make so much money - a possible pounds 14 million from stock options on top of his pounds 550,000 salary - that maybe he won't need to work again. Rose looks horrified when I put it to him. Oh no, he says, I have to work, I don't want to reduce my lifestyle!
Ah yes, life at Harry's Bar. But Rose is so likable and charm-ing that you can't really begrudge him any of it. The question is whether he can put in the performance. 'I am good at turning round companies,' he says. 'I'm not afraid of taking the tough decisions.' All he has to do now is prove it again, not least to his old rival Terry. Let battle commence.
ROSE IN A MINUTE
1949 Born 17 March. Educated Bootham School, York
1972 Appointed trainee, Marks & Spencer
1987 Promoted to commercial executive - Europe for M&S, Paris
1989 Joined Debenhams
1991 Appointed managing director, Evans; later ran Dorothy Perkins
1998 Chief executive, Argos, then CEO at Booker
2000 Chief executive, Arcadia.