The Andrew Davidson interview: Clara Freeman - It's a challenge in spades for Marks & Spencer's first female executive director, as she attempts to dig the retailer's stores out of trouble while continuing her efforts to build a level playing field fo

The Andrew Davidson interview: Clara Freeman - It's a challenge in spades for Marks & Spencer's first female executive director, as she attempts to dig the retailer's stores out of trouble while continuing her efforts to build a level playing field fo

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Who is Clara Freeman? The cry went up this autumn after the latest boardroom reshuffle at Marks & Spencer. 'We know almost nothing about Clara Freeman,' wailed a senior analyst in the Times. Where on earth did M&S's new head of UK stores come from? 'Her rise has been untrumpeted,' sniffed another perplexed City commentary, perhaps failing to notice that she had been on the M&S board since 1996. How can she be given the new job of running M&S's UK stores, 'effectively making her one of the most powerful women in British industry', when no one has heard of her? Just what is M&S doing?

Freeman meets me at the door of her new office at M&S's Baker Street headquarters. She is tall and slim, unmade-up and wearing an informal, grey MaxMara suit that seems slightly at odds with the striking terracotta walls around her. 'Haven't had a chance to redecorate yet,' she shrugs, looking palely nervous. Her thick eyebrows, running beneath a high forehead, crinkle slightly with anxiety. No surprise there, I guess. Freeman, 47, has spent her whole working life at M&S but has only just come into the media spotlight. And so far, the press hasn't been too kind.

She had originally agreed to speak to me about Opportunity Now, the working women's campaign group (formerly Opportunity 2000) that she has headed for over a year. But that was before her sudden shove into City celebrity.

Being sprung into sorting out M&S's UK stores during the biggest crisis in memory at the company is not, I would guess, what she had anticipated when she accepted the Opportunity Now role, but it certainly gives us a lot to talk about. As M&S's first and only female executive director, head not just of UK stores but also personnel and corporate communications, Freeman has rather a lot on her plate at the moment. Can she really do justice to an important lobbyist like Opportunity Now with so much pressure on her? It all depends on what happens over the next year at M&S.

The last 18 months have been difficult enough. From a market cap peak of nearly pounds 19 billion two years ago, the company, one of the City's best-loved blue chips, has fallen spectacularly from grace. Sales down, profits down, directors out, chairman walking, boardroom rows, more directors walking, two profit warnings, market cap halved. The high street has barely seen anything like it. M&S's clothes sales slumped, food followed. It is as if the store's customers suddenly woke up and thought, actually, we don't really like it here, let's go to Next or Gap or Debenhams or Asda instead.

Then M&S's senior executive structure imploded, with all-powerful chairman and chief executive Sir Richard Greenbury doing the going-going-gone act and fudging succession as directors fought publicly to get the top slot. New chief executive Peter Salsbury, another M&S lifer, has since waved a lot of colleagues out the door and promoted his own team, including Freeman, with whom he has worked closely for 10 years.

Layers of management have been stripped out. Redundancies announced. Initiatives launched. The clamour from outside, however, is for new faces.

Why? Because investors and M&S's own staff have been appalled by what's happened. After years of being the biggest, smoothest, classiest cruise ship on the high street, M&S slammed straight into an iceberg of consumer indifference without anyone seeing it coming. It still sells far more clothes than anyone else, and boasts an pounds 8 billion-plus total turnover, but it's rocking. If it doesn't get a fresh approach, it might sink.

So what on earth happened? 'We lost the pace, we lost the focus,' says Freeman calmly. But didn't anyone see it coming? 'Did I know?' she asks defensively, hand on heart. 'If I say that in May-June 1998 we were doing double-digit increases in our clothing business and everything else was going nicely, we had highest market share figures across areas, and the customer feedback surveys were OK, then we hit the buffers ...'

No, she says, no one saw it coming. It is the classic management story.

Everything is going swimmingly, so you don't tinker with a successful formula. 'If it ain't broke don't fix it,' she explains, 'but when it was clear that it was broke, we put the magnifying lens on the business and asked what was wrong. We were open and honest, and although we prided ourselves on giving customers excellent quality and a super environment in which to shop, staff and customers told us that the quality is not as consistent as it used to be, and the service needs to be better than it is.'

In other words, M&S's rivals outstripped it? Better deals, funkier shops, trendier clothes, cheaper, high-quality food? 'Yep, yep,' she nods. 'I think that is what people have said and we have agreed with it.' Freeman looks at me, smiling, shooting those eyebrows up, clearly indicating that she is not going to say any more on that one.

'In truth, it is hard to criticise a company for an approach that for years achieved the highest sales densities per square foot in the high street, and turned its financial services division into one of the most successful in Britain. But times are changing in the high street, and slow, bureaucratic systems can leave you with piles of unwanted merchandise that quicker retailers would never have ordered. Likewise, customers now demand more theatricality, a bit of poetry. Maybe M&S just seems prosaic now.

To my surprise, Freeman nods in agreement. 'The customer is king, Andrew, the customer is king,' she repeats. 'Shopping should be exciting, it should be fun, different, theatrical, visually stimulating. The whole ambience of the place flowing into the street should stop you in your tracks and say, hey, come on in here.'

But chanting the chant is one thing. Can M&S, with its impossibly huge target age range of 35-60-year-olds, with its 294 UK stores and its 75,000 staff, really pull that off?

Of course, says Freeman, it has done so before, it will do it again.

There are already a range of initiatives in place, some of which she can talk about, others she can't. Part seems to be catch-up: stores are being refurbished, prices dropped, a new marketing department created to deal with the image problem; M&S will also accept credit cards this year for the first time (hard to see how it could promote its internet sales without doing so), and it will follow Debenhams' initiative in promoting exclusive ranges of designerwear (in the past, it was always a loose secret that names such as Betty Jackson were producing designs for M&S, but never advertised as such) and putting lots more big, glossy models shots all over the stores.

Internally, Freeman is overseeing a programme of 1,000 redundancies to cut costs; M&S pensioner perks have been trimmed back - a move that made Freeman the butt of newspaper criticism recently - and outside the company, a lot of production is being moved overseas, throwing many jobs at British suppliers into doubt. Freeman is also working with staff on internal projects such as Probe, encouraging sales teams and buyers to talk more about what customers want, and Clear View, addressing the perceived criticisms of the company (ignoring the competition, being obsessed with processes, lacking staff on the sales floor, not putting the customer at the heart of the business).

But does it really come down to the sales staff? Some have accused them of being snooty - which is a bit ironic as M&S always used to be praised for the wonderful way it looked after its staff. All that, it seems, is under review. 'I think our sales advisers are passionate about the business, they are very keen to offer the customer what they need when they come in,' says Freeman, before moving into what I take to be personnel-speak.

To paraphrase, the staff are great but 'modernising' the company's relationship with them will lead to their 'increased motivation and fulfilment' which will in turn lead to better 'customer fulfilment and loyalty'. Ah yes.

'It really is a virtuous circle,' she says, smiling tightly at my scepticism.

'If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be doing the job now.' Her severity takes me by surprise. Behind the letter-box grin she has the kind of unvarnished earnestness that is maybe not what you expect from a retailer; if you met her briefly, your first impression would be senior civil servant, or high-up hospital trust management. Colleagues say she is actually far warmer than I detected, but there is not an ounce of flashiness in her bones. For those who insist on the importance of the theatrical in retailing - the flair, the bombast, the look-at-me - that might be a problem.

Would she call herself an instinctive retailer? Those brows beetle, as if she worries that this is a bit of a trick question. 'There is instinct there and you need a lot of that in this business, but I think today a lot more than instinct is required. You have to work out where the threat is going to come from in future and there is a lot of graft in talking to staff and customers about what they really think and need, rather than relying on instinct.'

In fact, she is one of the few senior executives at M&S to come up through the buying route. As she says herself, she started in knickers, she knows what sells. She only switched to commercial management because she wanted a new challenge. She is also unusual at the company in having an Oxford degree under her belt (her husband Michael Freeman describes her as 'a very unstandard M&S manager'). But she has applied herself to the M&S way, methodically, rationally working out processes that shift product, and following them to the letter.

That is her strength, combined with a clarity of purpose and a quiet determination to balance office and family life that has impressed other women managers outside M&S. 'She practises what she believes but she doesn't preach it to you,' says one friend. The combined package has made her an attractive Mrs Fixit for Salsbury and the new team at M&S. If there's a problem, give it to Freeman. 'Clara is highly intelligent but she communicates very well and has good, clear judgment,' says acting chairman Brian Baldock.

'Any initiative presented by her will come with precise, thorough, analytical arguments.'

She has worked at M&S since joining the company from university. Born Clara Jones in Lancashire, she had a happy, if unorthodox, childhood.

Dad was an ICI executive, mum was a geography teacher. The family followed Dad round the world in his postings, shifting the children from school to school. The middle of three daughters, Freeman wanted first to be a ballerina ('too tall and not good enough' she shrugs) and then to be an academic. Her sisters went on to be teachers, and as a group, she says, the family was nothing if not verbal in its passions. 'I can remember Mum used to make us put our hand up at tea when we got home from school, everyone was always shouting all at once.'

She admits she had no great yen to go into business - she married straight after her university finals, her husband wanted to be a writer and it was agreed she would bring in the money. M&S seemed a good, big company to choose. But she thinks some of her father's drive and ambition wore off on her. Her father, Southport-born and trained as a chemical engineer, had loved his life with ICI; she could see the benefits. She has always been close to her father, she adds. Her parents are now retired in the north of Spain and her father, at 81, never fails to ring in his thoughts on any of M&S's overseas branches.

The other great influence on her life is her husband. They met over the books in the history library one Saturday morning in Oxford and it was love at first coffee, she says. They married just days after she had finished her finals. They recently celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. 'Can you believe it?' she says, widening her eyes in mock horror. Others, she confesses with a smirk, are appalled that they have been married so long.

Michael Freeman, now a successful property developer (he and his brother Peter sold their development company Argent to BT's pension fund for pounds 240 million four years ago, taking around pounds 12 million proceeds) jokes that he and the kids share his wife with M&S - 'the company has become like an extra member of the family,' he sighs. Her rapid rise has not surprised him, he adds, because she is very smart and 'she loves every aspect of M&S's. She has also been prepared to broaden her experience in very different disciplines, moving from buying to merchandising to human resources, all leaps that other executives might have blanched at. Head-hunters have pestered her every step of the way but she has never budged. She is a one-company woman.

Never been unhappy at M&S? Oh yes, she says. The first year in knickers she wondered what on earth she was doing there - she'd worked hard for her history degree, for this? And after six or seven years buying, she was frustrated that all decisions about merchandising and store development were taken elsewhere. But the company always accommodated her ambitions.

Did she meet discrimination on the way? Despite the predominance of female floor staff, and the consumer power of women shoppers, M&S does not have a sparkling record of pushing women to the top. 'No, no discrimination, quite the reverse. There was a lot of support and encouragement and mentoring and cooperation.'

Really? Others say she is too loyal: she wouldn't have been asked to head up Opportunity Now if she hadn't experienced just how tough it is for women managers to get to the boardroom. But as she points out, being a woman manager at M&S, where the stores are frequently open 70-80 hours a week and flexible working patterns (a key Opportunity Now lobby-issue) are the norm, is a lot easier than pushing through a more traditional business.

She has two children aged nine and 12 and says she has coped with the demands of home and office by being extremely disciplined. 'If I say I'm going home at 6pm, I go home at 6pm.' She moved the family's London home (they also have a cottage in Oxfordshire) to be closer to the office and relies on her multi-millionaire husband to do more than most men traditionally do. Such as?

'Um ...' (When I ask Michael Freeman he laughs and says he does supper - 'I'm very good at microwaving' - and is currently overseeing an extension at the back of the house. 'I think Clara's contribution will be to cut the ribbon when it's finished.')

'Overt discrimination at companies is not the problem, it's the unconscious barriers, the culture, the working practices, the lack of relevant skills training and careers advice that get in the way of women's progress, in particular the lack of role models and confidence.' She wants to redress this with her work for Opportunity Now.

But maybe women aren't competing on an even playing field? Let's play devil's advocate: perhaps men are better suited to business - more competitive, more ruthless, more profit-oriented, less caring, less sharing - because they invented business to suit their own gender traits? Well, she says, I may have a point about old-fashioned businesses which are run on male terms. But one in three start-ups in this country are being founded by women. They are defining their own way of doing business.

Because all big companies are dinosaurs? She sees the trap coming. 'Definitely not,' she says, 'because lots of us are reinventing ourselves and provide huge employment opportunities for women.' But how long will equality take?

Opportunity 2000, supported by subscriptions from affiliate groups in the public and private sector, was set up in 1991 with the implication imbedded in its name that nine years would be enough. It wasn't, hence the change to Opportunity Now. 'We will go on for as long as members think it is useful. A lot has been achieved. The latest Institute of Management figures show that 18% of managers in plcs are women. In companies affiliated to Opportunity Now that figure is doubled.'

Surely, though, given the crisis M&S is in, she should be concentrating solely on matters inside the company? As head of UK stores and personnel and corporate affairs she is in charge not just of staffing issues but operations, processes, PR and the very look of M&S's shops, at a time when the business is going through a radical reorganisation of its structure.

To head Opportunity Now on top of all that, unless it is just a token gesture, is hardly going to appease M&S's critics. Has she got the time?

I can see she doesn't like that one. 'Opportunity Now is not a token activity,' she says, with real steel. 'I did take it on in 1998 when things were going swimmingly and I am doing my best to make good time for it ... I haven't had the pressure you talk about, that people think I should be more focused here. Opportunity Now is about the only other thing I do outside M&S. Most executive directors, even of companies in crisis, would have non-executive roles externally, and I would be criticised if I didn't. People would say, 'as an M&S lifer, what does she know about life outside?''

She pauses before looking at her watch. 'Now, how are we doing for time?

I think we must be nearly through.'

Nearly, but not quite. How does she relax? 'I shop,' she says tersely.

'You asked me earlier if I was an instinctive retailer, and when I do get a bit of time I go shopping. I go with my daughter, places like Zara, Karen Millen and Kookai. But I have to say I love shopping from top to bottom: I love Selfridges and Bond Street and internet shopping ... Leisure for me is shopping.' (This is unfair but when I ask her husband if it's true, he goes 'Did she say that? She loves gardening and reading history, I think.' But really, he says, she should relax more as she always seems to have piles of paperwork to go through every evening).

Final question: does she want to be boss? For the only time in the whole interview she looks rather flustered. 'I am just going to do the stuff that I have been given to do, so for the next couple of years I am going to do that. I go back to what my Dad taught me: 'concentrate on doing a really good job of what you are being asked to do every day'. And as you said to me, this is quite a job.'

We have to stop there, she adds, ushering me out. Later, one of her colleagues tells me that I have probably got the wrong impression of Freeman, she is much less nervy and severe than she appeared to me (look at the photos, she's giggling there). She is just, understandably, very press-wary at the moment.

That colleague had no doubts about her future, and believed, like everyone else I spoke to, that Freeman is a probable future boss of the whole of M&S, provided the results go Salsbury's way. And if not at M&S, Freeman, already a pounds 300,000-a-year-plus executive, will be able to walk into the boss's job at just about any other FTSE-100 retailer on the back of turning the blue chip giant round. 'Does she have the balls to do the top job?' asks a friend rhetorically.

'Absolutely. She has M&S flowing through her veins. But whether she would be tempted, well, it depends on what it involves.'

In other words, she wouldn't take the top slot just to be the biggest banana in the jungle. It would have to be on her own terms.

As for the head of Opportunity Now having balls? Now that, I think, would make Freeman laugh. l

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