MT EXCLUSIVE: In-depth profile of new Marks and Spencer boss Marc Bolland

Just before landing the plum M&S job, Marc Bolland told MT how he's worked his magic at Morrisons.

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Heavy traffic in south-west London means I’m late meeting Marc Bolland, chief executive of Morrisons and the man who, a couple of weeks after we meet, is revealed as the successor to Sir Stuart Rose at Marks & Spencer. I’m due at Morrisons’ Wimbledon store: not so long ago that wouldn’t have been possible. Morrisons, run by Sir Ken Morrison – whose father founded the business from a Bradford market stall in 1899 – was a North of England firm. The idea of it having a branch in refined SW19 was unthinkable.

The firm sold itself on Yorkshire thrift, providing basic food at low prices – nothing fancy or expensive. And it did brilliantly. Under Sir Ken, the company joined the stock market and created hundreds of outlets. Then, in 2004, he bought Safeway. Predominantly southern-based, Safeway was much bigger than its Northern rival. Although it had fallen on hard times, it was perceived – from an arrogant, Southern viewpoint – as smarter and more upmarket.

The industry and media had a field day, smirking at the tyke flatcaps invading the sophisticated south. Researchers were dispatched to the north and came back with tales of shops stocking giant Yorkshire puddings, plate-sized pies and enormous cakes. The firm’s traditionally strong position in MT’s Britain’s Most Admired Companies awards took a pasting, too. From a pre-merger high of ninth overall in 2003, Morrisons fell to 186th in 2007 as it struggled to integrate Safeway. But it’s back on the rise, up to 109th last year and 45th this year. It can’t be long before Morrisons is in the top 10 once more.

At the time, Sir Ken stood accused of the cardinal sin of believing he could bridge a great cultural divide. Yet here I am, in the centre of Wimbledon, where it’s impossible to miss the Morrisons. Part of a newish development, the store is next to the Odeon cinema, on a prime site facing the main street. It’s all steel and glass. There’s an airy café by the entrance. This supermarket is slick and modern, and very London.

Because I’m late, Bolland is also impossible to miss. He has had the pictures taken and is standing inside the shop doorway on his own. He’s tall, suave and elegant. His hair is brushed back and he’s wearing a simple but expensive-looking two-piece pinstripe suit. His silk tie is knotted tightly, just so.

He was born in 1959, in Holland. It’s obvious that he has got that easy informality and jocularity but underlying intellectual seriousness of the Dutch. His eyes twinkle good-humouredly.

What is it about the Dutch? Years of camping in Europe have taught me that although they may appear casual on the outside and can hold their own with the English in terms of wit and drinking, they also possess a ruthless drive and efficiency. On holiday, the latter expressed itself in the washing-up and shower areas, where they displayed a zeal for cleanliness that was quite alien to the lazy English.

So it is with Bolland. He’s smiling but he wants me to take in and understand what Morrisons is about. Partly, it’s to ensure that I see for myself and don’t slip back into stereotyping.

‘The first thing I want to show you is here,’ he says, pointing to a fresh salad bar and an assistant at work behind it. ‘You see that man there, he’s preparing fresh pizzas for our pizza offering. He’s using the same vegetables that we use in our salads – all fresh.’

Next to him, another worker takes a rack of pies out of an oven. ‘Those pies have been made here, on the premises. In the past, they were made off-site. Now they’re all fresh.’ He adds in his soft accent: ‘Others are not doing this.’

Bolland leads me to the chicken counter. It’s mid-afternoon and a queue is forming for the roast birds. The customers are mostly women, smartly dressed, and they’re clearly buying cooked chicken to take home for the family supper. In Wimbledon, from Morrisons.

‘All fresh,’ says the boss again, and by now I’m beginning to get the mantra. ‘We rotate them all day. Every hour, fresh chickens will be put there.’ He gestures around him. ‘Pies, cakes… they’re all done in-store.’

He grabs a bag of meat pasties. ‘Feel that,’ he says, handing them to me. ‘They’re still warm.’ They’re four for £2. How does he do that? He laughs. ‘It’s a big secret.’ We pass the sandwich section. ‘They use the same bread that is baked in the store. Look, for £1.40 a houmous salad sandwich – fresh, all made in-store.’

He’s got the evangelism of the supermarket chief – I’ve seen it before with the likes of Sir Terry Leahy, Justin King and Andy Bond. Their plans for greater expansion may provoke accusations that they’re harming the high street and killing off small shops, but they don’t see it that way: they are on a mission to provide – to supply a constant choice of plentiful, wholesome, decent fare at reasonable prices.

Bolland is the same but with a twist: he’s passionate about freshness, about food being made in-store. ‘No-one makes food like us. We make it in-store or it comes from one of the 14 factories we own. I’m a retailer, but I could also be the number five food producer in the UK, with a turnover in the food I make of over £2bn. We’re the most vertically integrated of any supermarket – we even have our own livestock.’

We’re by the vegetables. ‘Look at these carrots,’ he says, running his fingers over a plastic sack of them. ‘This is also how we’re different. We don’t specify a particular size. We buy the whole crop from a farmer, then we clean and sort them all. The neater ones go into the premium bags and the larger ones into the value packs. We throw nothing away. The ones that are broken we sell off as pig feed.’ He lifts the carrots to his nose and sniffs. ‘They’re very good.’

He’s off to the prepared salads. He takes a bag of watercress salad and a bag of herb salad and holds them up. ‘I bet you did not expect to see these in a Morrisons. In four years, we’ve doub-led the volume of salads we’re selling.’

Did I know Morrisons was fresh pasta retailer of the year in the UK in 2008? I have to admit I didn’t. ‘Here, for 69p, you can buy this lovely bag of fresh pasta. Then you can get some salmon fillet from our fishmonger and some cream, and for below £2 a person you can have a delicious meal for two people of fresh pasta in a salmon and cream sauce. You have to agree, that’s not bad.’ I nod my head. It isn’t.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Bolland’s passion. As he wanders around, he greets the staff, says ‘good work’ and ‘well done’ to all of them, and is welcoming to the customers, making eye contact. He observes the detail: a pricetag that has slipped down is straightened and a bag of salad is patted and plumped up.

Bolland calls over the manager, John. ‘How big is this store?’ he asks; ‘17,500 feet’ is the reply. ‘That’s half our normal footprint – a normal Morrisons is 35,000.’

It’s a relatively small shop, yet there’s room for all the aspects that he and Morrisons hold dear, including a fishmonger’s and a butcher’s. At the fish counter, he says: ‘We’ve got 30 to 40 lines here, all fresh, not frozen. We only have qualified fishmongers. Same with meat – we only use real certified butchers. They waste nothing, everything is used in some way.’

A fishmonger is dispatched to fetch us a sal-mon. He returns, proudly carrying a magnificent specimen. It will be filleted here, in-store. There is no question of Morrisons’ buying in frozen prepared fish from elsewhere, says Bolland.

We head for the bread. ‘Look, our own bakery,’ he says, walking behind the counter and into an area where a staff member is turning over rolls from the oven. ‘He’s the baker,’ says Bolland. ‘He’s here all the time, so a customer can feel: I know my baker, I want to smell his bread, see it, touch him.’

Golly. His enthusiasm can run away with him. ‘How many lines of bread do we do?’ he asks the baker. ‘That’s 130 lines of bread, mostly from scratch, all made here. It’s a real bakery.’

We move on. He’s telling me how Morrisons has struck deals with colleges around the country so it’ll take their trainee bakers, butchers and fishmongers. But surely all this – the baker, butcher, fishmonger, the pizza maker, the salad counter – takes up room that a management consultant might say could be put to be more efficient, higher-volume, use? ‘Yes, when I arrived a little over three years ago, there were questions from the City, like why don’t we sell off the real estate? Also, why not sell off the supply chain?’

He didn’t, and the result has been a remark-able surge in which Morrisons has added nearly a million customers a week and achieved a growth in sales and profits that has outstripped any retailer in the sector, including the mighty Tesco. ‘It’s not my policy to say it, but we’ve got the biggest sales growth and margin growth. Our operating margin is the second-best, after Tesco. And we’re the only one that has done a profits upgrade.’

Nobody in the industry laughs at Morrisons any more. There’s still work to be done in converting some sections of the public. Morrisons may not have the cachet of Waitrose or Marks & Spencer, but in terms of freshness and quality, Bolland would argue, he’s giving them more than a run for their money. And they’re lowering their prices, partly to offset the perceived increasing threat from below; in short, they’re coming to him rather than the other way round.

Some critics mutter that Morrisons is doing well only because of the recession, that cash-strapped customers who have traded down will migrate back upmarket come the recovery. Is Morrisons just a recession retailer, I ask?

His denial is emphatic. ‘We grew at the same pace in the year before the recession started. We were by far the fastest growing in the year up to the recession. I can trade on both sides of the economic cycle. I don’t mind which.’

Bolland is guarded about the changes he has made. He doesn’t want to be seen to be critical of the previous regime. But after persuasion, he admits: ‘The fresh food counters were there already, but they weren’t as open and they didn’t make as much. I knocked the walls down, to make every store more open, so customers could see behind the counters and what the staff were doing, and so a customer can say to the baker: Please would you slice this bread for me?’

All 410 stores were given a makeover, and new lines in fresh food, pasta and bread introduced. More than 12,000 products were improved or re-launched. The ‘Bettabuy’ description was dropped. Messages saying ‘Thank you for calling’ were dropped in favour of the warmer ‘See you later’. All stores have a wide central ‘Market Street’ aisle flanked by fresh food counters and bursting with promotions.

Bolland has pushed CSR hard, and Morrisons has won awards for greenness. ‘We’re the only retailer that has maximised down its carbon footprint. Our lorries drive less miles than the others and our products are fresher. Our meat comes from our own abattoirs and it’s British.’

Morrisons has been encouraged to broaden its horizons – so, for example, it sponsored the launch last month of Walt Disney’s A Christmas Carol. ‘The world premiere was a big event in London, involving three cinemas, the red carpet and the turning on of the Christmas lights in Oxford Street and Regent Street. And right there was the name of Morrisons. We sponsored it. We were the ones working with Disney.’

The film was specifically chosen. ‘Christmas Carol fits Morrisons very well,’ says Bolland. ‘It’s about having a feel for the past, of togetherness, of a shared bond and supporting others.’

Morrisons, he stresses, is an up-to-the-minute organisation. ‘We’ve got the most contemporary head office, in Bradford, of any retailer. It’s very modern and relies on natural lighting. There are no separate boardrooms or directors’ dining rooms. Staff morale is fantastic.’

Bolland likes to say of Morrisons: ‘We’re a national retailer that wants to go nationwide. One-third of all households in the UK do not have a Morrisons within 15 minutes’ drive-time. We’ve identified over 100 locations where we won’t cannibalise an existing Morrisons. So there are lots of opportunities for growth.’

But he’s not rushing to pour in millions of pounds. He won’t push to go online until more people are familiar with what Morrisons offers. ‘They first have to see our stores. We know that 40% of the population have not been in Market Street yet and experienced a Morrisons. Online is for the future. Before then, we must make sure people take the opportunity to see us.’

Is he likely to stay at Morrisons? The City is seized with the fact that he’s not hugely locked in to the company. One possibility is that he returns to his native Holland or – more enticingly – takes over the running of Marks & Spencer. What about the latter – would he quit to do it? ‘I am having a lot of fun here, I’m very happy here.’

He grins as he says it and his eyes sparkle, but there’s no visible flinch on Bolland’s face at the mention of M&S. Well, well. Two weeks later, the announcement was made. Taking over from Sir Stuart Rose may prove difficult, though, working as he does with the Morrison family, which remains the firm’s biggest shareholder.

‘I’ve a very good relationship with the family. We’re opening a store in Halifax and Sir Ken will come to that. Whenever we have a celebration for an employee passing 25 years with the company, Sir Ken always comes – which is important for them and for the workforce, who can see we’re not going mad.’ But the Morrisons, he emphasises, are ‘treated no differently from other shareholders’. So he will make presentations to them just as he does to other investors.

Listening to Bolland, it’s easy to forget the back-story to his appointment. The Safeway purchase hit sales and profits and the company was in crisis. Sir Ken was still in charge, even though well into his seventies. He fought to prevent an outsider coming in. In the end, he could resist no more, and that interloper was Bolland.

To say the City was taken aback is an understatement. Bolland was a foreigner who had risen from graduate trainee to chief operating officer of Heineken – which, the last time anyone looked, was a brewer, not a retailer.

First the foreigner thing. Yes, he’s the only Dutchman among 130,000 Morrisons employees, but he maintains it is not a problem. ‘For the ast 15 years at Heineken I did international work and moved around. I can tell you the UK is the most similar to the Netherlands in terms of culture. I watched the same things as you when I was young – Dad’s Army, Tommy Cooper and Coronation Street.’

The transition to Yorkshire, least showy of English counties and perhaps the one closest to the Dutch in that regard, was not difficult. He lives, for the moment at least, in Harrogate and, after Ajax in Amsterdam, his favourite team is Leeds United. ‘I went the other night. I find it remarkable that 22,000 people in white shirts can turn up one night when the game isn’t very good and, two weeks later, the same 22,000 will be back.’

He has taken up shooting on the Yorkshire moors and goes running round a local park to stay fit. At weekends, he likes to drive his Aston Martin DB6 along the Yorkshire lanes, stopping off at a country pub for lunch. ‘I love Yorkshire. It is the countryside environment in the UK.’

He also does what all senior retailers seem to do – spending time visiting his own and rival stores. Once a week, he will cook a meal using Morrisons’ ingredients or one bought from a competitor, to see how it compares.

When he was approached by a headhunter about the Morrisons job, he was aware of the company’s predicament through reading the Financial Times. He also knew of Sir Ken. ‘He was an extremely big entrepreneur.’ He pauses. ‘People like that are usually very special, and you can learn a lot from them. Ken is the ultimate retailer. He’s very passionate about the business – it’s in his veins. He has created a fortune himself, his interests are much broader than just retail. He knows about history, about places in Europe. He’s extremely erudite.’

Bolland is the second little-known foreign high-flier from fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) to have shifted to another sector recently. The other is Elio Leoni-Sceti at EMI. Bolland went from producing and flogging beer, Leoni-Sceti from Reckitt Benckiser, which sells household cleaners and dishwasher tablets.

According to Bolland, it should not be so much of a surprise. ‘In FMCG, I always loved retail, seeing how our products were being presented. Making beer is not that difficult – selling it is. I spent 200 days a year travelling abroad for Heineken, during which time I saw more retail formulas and styles than any retailer.’

Bolland played it cool at first. Then he went to the UK to visit the Morrisons operation and to meet Sir Ken. Gradually, his ambivalence dis-appeared. ‘I looked at the business model and asked: is it broken? No, was the answer. Morrisons had an integrated supply chain that cut out the middleman. Was that strong? Yes, it was.’

Once at Morrisons, he pursued a policy of ‘evolution not revolution’. Central to that was a clear vision that could be picked up by the staff. ‘We saw lots of retailers that were selling lots of different things and weren’t focusing on any one thing – so food retailers would also sell TVs and clothes. We wanted to focus entirely on food. We created a clear line on which everyone could focus: ‘Food specialist for everyone.’ We do sell some electronic items, DVDs and kitchenware, but they’re not our primary activity. Our primary activity is food.’

The ‘food specialist for everyone’ slogan was deliberate. ‘Every word counts. We sell food, we’re specialists – all our people are trained and then after three years, trained again. For means providing an excellent service. Everyone means everyone – we don’t want to move up a grade, we want to be there for everyone who likes our scale and our prices.’

Bolland insists it has been a team effort: ‘It’s definitely not a me story.’ But he does care, of that there is no doubt. ‘I’m Dutch, so in that sense I perhaps feel it more from the heart.’

The heart is where many Britons continue to reserve a special place for Marks & Spencer. His new job is one of the most coveted and high-profile positions that UK plc has to offer, and if he is going to shine there as he has at Morrisons, he has a substantial task on his hands. M&S is being squeezed by hungry rivals both up and downmarket, and Bolland knows little of the rag trade, a notoriously cut-throat business. So he’s facing a steep learning curve, but the auguries are good.


Three challenges facing Bolland

1. To manage City expectations as adroitly as Stuart Rose has

2. To learn the rag trade inside-out

3. To fight discounters, and to get M&S back on the front foot


Bolland in a minute

1959 Born 20 March, Apeldoorn, Netherlands. Educated Apeldoorn Christian Lyceum and University of Groningen (MBA)

1987 Joins Heineken as a graduate trainee. Works in the Democratic Republic of Congo and then Slovakia

2001 Appointed to Heineken board as global export director

2005 Chief operating officer at Heineken

2006 Joins William Morrison as CEO

2009 Chief executive designate, M&S

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