UK: Heller on management - Lesson of the sparks at Marks. (2 of 2)

UK: Heller on management - Lesson of the sparks at Marks. (2 of 2) - It is symbolically helpful that the head office review which preceded the Greenbury cuts was conducted by a Sieff - David of that ilk. But the family has long since relinquished power t

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It is symbolically helpful that the head office review which preceded the Greenbury cuts was conducted by a Sieff - David of that ilk. But the family has long since relinquished power to the professional managers whose careful nurture has been central to the culture's commercial strength. One of the analysts called upon by the Financial Times talked of a "transition ... into a meritocracy". But M and S has been a genuine meritocracy for decades. The meritocrats had simply become too many.

Should that nettle have been grasped earlier? The cutbacks do not say much for the accuracy of the manpower planning - although detailed strategic thinking has never loomed large in a business that has prospered by killing its failures and letting its successes ride. The major strategic thrusts at home post-war - increasing selling space, becoming a specialist food retailer, and broadening the product line both within and outside textiles - have been broad-brush approaches.

The emergence of all-food stores, with little more than the odd knicker and sock from other ranges, is an important development from the most successful organic diversification in European retailing. Cultures like that of Michael House should be hothouses of organic growth: lifetime employees, deeply imbued in the philosophy, can only build their careers by building the business. The same applies in Japanese companies: because managers cannot job-hop, they must make the company prosper - hence the national strength in product line extension and similar kaizen brilliances.

But M and S has so far come nowhere near the Japanese success in exporting corporate cultures. The history of the acquired Canadian stores is a story best veiled in silence; the continent has done better (though slowly), while Brooks Brothers in the United States is currently a lumbering white elephant. Far from adapting their culture for American consumption, the Marksists have acted utterly out of character, imposing pay cuts that employees can only avoid by hitting sales targets.

Taken with the Michael House massacre, that might sound ominous: more likely it is simply evidence that takeovers are not this company's bag. But equally, the high street recession, while a spur to greater efficiency and a convenient mask for necessary action, should not obscure the real moral. Humane managerial paternalism is still a marvellous employment strategy, so long as it is applied with efficiency - in good times as in bad.

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