It was 2000, Marks & Spencer shares had dropped by 50% in two years, and the firm once known as a solid British success story was drowning in negative press. Marcus Powell, head of human resources strategy and one of the main leaders in an internal overhaul, was offered a vice-presidency in “a world-class company” and handed in his notice. Then he thought carefully about the firm that sponsored his university degree and nurtured his career for 12 years.
“I withdrew my resignation,” he says. “I decided I wanted to stay. There is a strong emotional tie to the organisation, teamwork is second to none, and people are passionate about what we stand for. When we were going through difficulties, people pulled together. It made us stronger — but without the complacency we used to have.”
M & S has been through some tough times. Once the biggest retailer in Europe, the store reported profits of £1.1 billion in 1998 — just at the time when Daniel Upward took a pay cut to join as a graduate trainee. Six months later, profits had plummeted, a third of his intake had been made redundant and another third had quit.
However, Upward decided to stay, and now says that the experience he has gained of a company in trouble is entirely beneficial.
Under the chairman Luc Vandevelde, M & S has just reported a year of growth, with the help of designer fashion. Upward, now cataloguing manager of lingerie, says: “We have some great players on board.”
And three-quarters of the staff agree, praising the firm’s caring and fun team spirit.
Redundancies were a shock, but 90% of staff believe that service is held dear and now the company is starting to give customers what they want again.
Sue Middlehurst, who joined 18 years ago and was one of the first people at head office to job share, says: “We can now see the fruits of stripping some of those layers.”
Only six firms can beat M & S’s figure of 74% of staff saying work doesn’t interfere with home life.
M & S has kept the loyalty of staff such as Vera House, men’s tailoring adviser at the Marble Arch store in London, whose bosses were so impressed by her confident and kindly manner that they argued to have her stay on past retirement — she is now 67 and used for recruitment adverts.
“They really look after you,” she says.
“We get a 20% discount on merchandise, subsidised meals and even doctors on site.”
Justin King, head of foods who sits on the board, joined in 2001 and was one example of a ground-breaking decision to appoint from outside. “I thought I was getting the best job in food in the UK and so far that has proved to be the case,” he says.
King is also chair of the business involvement group, which gives an employee voice to issues such as the facilities in a new head office; he says staff feel proud and involved in M & S’s success, and 77% of those we surveyed agree.
Male to Female ratio:
Number of Staff:
Under 35 to Over 55 Ratio: