Sir Stuart Rose: retailers face 'Darwinian war'

The former M&S CEO says business leaders should prioritise ethics and sustainability, and only the strong will survive.

by Elizabeth Anderson
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
The retail veteran Sir Stuart Rose told MT that business leaders have greater responsibilities than they did a few years ago. ‘We live in a global world. Information is instant. Businesses are much more important than they used to be. Governments are strained and businesses need to decide whether or not they should carry the load,’ he said at the launch of a report on responsible business by the Ashridge Business School and the International Business Leaders Forum.

At the centre of this, he believes, should be a commitment to ethics and sustainability. Under Sir Stuart's tenure, M&S became one of the first companies to charge for plastic bags in 2008, cutting plastic bag use by 80% in the first few months after being introduced. ‘M&S proved you can be a sustainable and a profitable business,’ he said.

Retailers have faced tough challenges in the last few years, as the internet offers customers cheaper alternatives and better choice. But Rose believes intense competition is good for businesses. ‘Anyone who thinks retail is dead is exaggerating,’ he told MT.  ‘It's a Darwinian war – the strong survive and the weak fail.’ He’s confident about M&S’s chances. ‘It’s been on the high street for 127 years, and I bet it'll be there in another 100.’

Another fiercely debated issue around leadership at the moment is the presence of women on boards. It is rare to find a female chief executive among Britain's biggest retailers. M&S has never had a woman in the top job, although Rose says it's unfair to say strong female leaders don’t exist in the corporation. ‘M&S has got one of the highest percentages of women on its board. A woman has not yet risen to the top who has been right to be CEO. Are the top jobs open to all women who are suitably qualified? Yes. Whether they get it depends on whether they're good enough and whether they want it.’

- Look out for MT's interview with Sir Stuart Rose in the forthcoming May edition of the magazine.

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