Why is the boss of Halfords biking off to M&S?

Marks & Spencer's clothes business has been stubbornly lacklustre, but for Jill McDonald it's an opportunity to show what she's made of.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 03 May 2017

Jill McDonald raised a few eyebrows when she resigned as boss of McDonald’s UK (she’s no relation of Ronald) to become the CEO of Halfords. Burgers and bikes have little in common (except being covered in grease...) and she’d been tipped to follow fellow Brit Steve Easterbrook across the Atlantic to the fast food chain’s mothership in Illinois.

What connected the roles, she explained when we met at MT’s Britain’s Most Admired Companies event in 2015, was the importance of understanding customer needs. She certainly did a good job of that at McDonald’s, the UK arm of which has continued to grow while the wider business has stagnated. And while profits at Halfords took a knock last year on the back of currency fluctuations and discounting, revenues went in the right direction.

Her latest move, to take command of Marks & Spencer’s troubled clothes division will strike some as similarly unusual. The fashion world is quite distinct from the rest of retail in its culture, and several of those with more experience of selling frocks than McDonald have failed to improve things. It’s arguably a step down too – leaving the job of chief executive of one listed retailer to head up a mere division of another.

But it’s a big division. With revenues of £3.9bn last year it’s almost four times the size of Halfords. While she won’t have quite the same degree of responsibility as in her past role, M&S said McDonald ‘will have overall profit and loss accountability for all aspects of the M&S non-Food business, from design and sourcing through to supply chain and logistics.’ She will take over from Steve Rowe, who has continued to hold responsibility for the division since becoming CEO last year.

Read more: McDonald's CEO Jill McDonald: 'McJob is insulting, it really hits my button'

It’s a huge job and will probably come with a decent pay rise too. In 2015/16 McDonald bagged around £850,000, according to Halfords’ annual report, while Rowe, who spent most of that year as head of general merchandise, was paid more than £1m.

Job moves at this level are about a lot more than getting an extra 0 on your P60 though. This is a bold step for McDonald, who could be setting herself up to join the long list of outside hires who’ve failed to stoke interest in M&S’s threads.

She certainly has her work cut out. But if she succeeds in one of the toughest jobs in retail and turns things around then she’ll be lauded as a great of British business and have an even longer queue of executive headhunters lining up to buy her coffee.


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