The Rise and Fall of M&S; By Judi Bevan; Profile Books pounds 16.99
I must declare an interest. I am one of those suits, clones, and over-promoted shelf-fillers often thus described in the national press. That sustained attack on M&S's management was unprecedentedly personal and vindictive, especially in its treatment of Sir Richard Greenbury.
It was led, Judi Bevan tells us in The Rise and Fall of M&S, by a senior financial journalist who believed herself to have been humiliated by the chairman at a press conference, and who, as 'a woman scorned', was intent on revenge. A responsible use of the power of the press?
Bevan's book is an extended piece of sensationalised journalism. It is a history of the company, chronicling not so much the triumphs of the six chairmen as their vices. In stressing the gossip, she misses the essence of the characters. Simon Marks was a fearsome character, but he was not a hirer and firer of the old school - on the contrary, he sought to build lasting principles for the firm.
Derek Rayner is introduced as a 'brilliant, irritable chain-smoking homosexual'.
Bevan suggests it was the loyalty of M&S staff that prevented this reaching the press. But she then puts that right with some unsubstantiated gossip.
At least she does notice the loyalty, though - not a virtue much understood or practised, I believe, in journalism.
Greenbury emerges as Bevan's villain. Rick is a much-loved and respected friend, and of course he is not without faults. But through his energy, ability and understanding of the business, he led M&S to heights of turnover, profitability and reputation previously undreamed of. He may not be Bevan's image of a visionary, but he was certainly a consummate strategist.
We are told he and his board ignored marketing. But if marketing means identifying a demand and developing the right products to satisfy it, then believe me, we understood marketing and built market shares to prove it. There was also lack of respect for the City. Does Bevan mean the merchant banks who encouraged Marconi into the acquisitions that transformed the company, or the analysts with their participation in the great dot.com hype?
We worked hard at the long-term development of relationships with our customers, staff, suppliers and shareholders, and got strong results.
So what happened in late 1998? The financial press, in a frenzy of hindsight, blamed Greenbury for previous mistakes compounded by his oppressive style, which, however, they had hardly noticed at the time.
Indeed, Bevan points out that when the previous year's results were announced in May, the Daily Telegraph, later to become the company's most vicious scourge, wrote: 'The shares are trading on 17 times expected earnings, a historically cheap rating for one of the best managed companies in this sector' (my italics). I don't doubt misjudgments were made, but the company's self-critical style was to recognise and rectify errors.
Two appalling canards must be laid to rest - that Greenbury was uninterested in anything new and was not concerned with the competition. In fact, he initiated many crucial developments in all areas of the business. As for competition, it was Rick who visited the chairman and CEO of Gap and struck up a lasting friendship.
Rick also gave great thought to recruiting experienced and respected non-executive directors. Bevan may wish to reflect on this when she accuses him of insisting on having his own way and stifling debate.
I had left Baker Street before Peter Salsbury began his slash-and-burn policy. I'm at a loss to understand his motivation. I fear precious assets of the business were damaged beyond restoration: in particular the relationship with staff and suppliers.
The last chapter, however, gives me hope. I have never met Roger Holmes but I am impressed by what I read and hear. If he is truly returning to a passion for the goods then he is back in the camp of the old regime.