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.