Halfords chief executives never seem to last very long, but then M&S clothing managing directors never seem to either.
The news that Halfords boss Jill McDonald is leaving for M&S may not have been a total surprise because she had never seemed completely well suited to the role given her previous experience at British Airways and McDonald’s, notwithstanding the importance of customer service in the business.
She began her career in 1987 at Colgate-Palmolive in brand management and joined British Airways in 1990 where she held a number of marketing and management roles in the UK and Hong Kong, leading her to become the airline’s head of global marketing.
She joined McDonald’s in 2006 as chief marketing officer UK and Northern Europe and was appointed chief executive of the UK and Northwest Europe in 2010.
She has only been at Halfords for 2 years, just as her predecessor, Matt Davies, only lasted there for two years before moving on to run Tesco UK.
Maybe Halfords is just a superb breeding ground for retail executives – another previous incumbent, David Wild, has gone on to great things as boss of Domino’s Pizza.
However, the veteran investor Warren Buffett once famously said that “when a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact”.
“Given the fear that McDonald wanted to leave a sinking ship, it is noteworthy that Halfords made a point in today’s announcement of clarifying that the results”
Despite its moves into car servicing and bike retailing, Halfords remains a pretty mature and over-stored business facing strong online competition.
The weak performance of the share price since the announcement of Jill McDonald’s appointment in March 2015 (from about 450p to only about 360p) perhaps tells its own story.
Given the fear that McDonald wanted to leave a sinking ship, it is noteworthy that Halfords made a point in today’s announcement of clarifying that the results for the 52 weeks ended March 31 (to be announced on May 25) are expected to be in line with market expectations.
FTSE 250 ambition
Of course, it’s easy for analysts to be cynical, but when McDonald addressed the Retail Week Live Conference in March – and talked enthusiastically about Halfords’ prospects – she said she’d always wanted to try the role of being a FTSE 250 chief executive.
“I have long been an M&S customer and professional fan, so working with the brand was a career opportunity that I just couldn’t turn down”
Jill MacDonald, Halfords
Back in March 2015 she said: “Halfords is a business and brand that resonates with me and the UK public and I am delighted to be joining the company.”
Now she gushes: “I have long been an M&S customer and professional fan, so working with the brand was a career opportunity that I just couldn’t turn down”.
The biggest shock was not the news that she is leaving Halfords this autumn, but that she is to be the next managing director of clothing, home and beauty at M&S, reporting to chief executive Steve Rowe.
It goes without saying that there is nothing in her CV that would have implied that she was a candidate for this key position at M&S.
There are doubtless many executives in fashion retailing, at home and abroad, internally and externally, who will be feeling that they were better qualified for the role.
“Jill’s first-class customer knowledge and great experience in running dynamic, high achieving teams make her exactly the right person”
Steve Rowe, M&S
But ‘leftfield’ choices can sometimes be inspiring and it’s worth recalling that many thought Matt Davies an unusual choice to head Tesco UK.
To be fair, Steve Rowe himself insists that “Jill’s first-class customer knowledge and great experience in running dynamic, high achieving teams make her exactly the right person to lead this all-important part of our business from recovery into growth”.
Maybe the M&S clothing managing director role, which has also been a bit of a revolving door in recent years, is crying out for somebody who is good with customers and people, but for this to be true M&S need to be sure who their customers really are.
In the past, M&S has simply tried to be all things to all men – and women – in terms of clothing and there is no sign so far that Steve Rowe wants to take a more focused approach.
The future of M&S lies in food and the task of managing the inexorable decline of M&S clothing may well need new talents from outside the fashion industry.
But Halfords investors will still be dismayed to hear that Jill McDonald is off. And Marks & Spencer investors will know from bitter experience not to get their hopes up that a new boss of M&S clothing will make any difference.
It would be ironic if Jill McDonald goes from dealing with flat tyres at Halfords to finding that the engine of the M&S clothing business has a flat battery.