Having impressed at Inditex’s Russian division with his relationship building it seems M&S couldn’t have picked a better international chief, says Tim Danaher

When Marc Bolland set out to find a new international chief to spearhead Marks & Spencer’s drive into new markets, the aim was to find someone who would break the M&S mould. And he’s done that by appointing Jan Heere.

Heere is half-Dutch, but those who know him say he will have presented many greater attractions to Bolland during the interview process than the fact they share a nationality. Heere - who was placed in the role by Russell Reynolds - is truly a citizen of the world, being born in Spain of Spanish/Dutch parentage, educated in France, and able to speak five languages fluently.

His multicultural, multilingual skillset will come in handy as M&S seeks to double international sales by 2013/14. Global expansion took a bit of a back seat in Sir Stuart Rose’s reign, but is a high priority for Bolland and Heere’s experience with Inditex, where he is currently general manager of its Russian business, should set him in good stead for the adventures ahead.

When he took over Inditex’s Russian operation five years ago, Heere inherited a mess. He took the business there from being a poorly performing joint venture with 20 stores to a company-owned operation with 170 shops employing about 4,500 people.

CITIZEN OF THE WORLD

  • Born In Spain, and of Spanish/Dutch parentage
  • Educated In France
  • Business degree From the University of Brussels
  • Speaks five languages fluently English, Spanish, French, Dutch and Russian

Russia is well-known as one of the most difficult places for retailers to do business, yet he used his powers of diplomacy to build a strong set-up and overcome the many obstacles retailers face there. “His core strength is people and communication,” says Aurora Fashions chief executive Mike Shearwood, who worked closely with Heere at Inditex. “He’s an incredible linguist, very smart and great at relationship building.”

Those relationship building skills were invaluable in his earlier roles in Inditex, which included working in international HR. This involved spending time in many different markets including the UK in 2001, when he worked alongside Shearwood setting up the Inditex operation here. That knowledge of several different global markets will prove invaluable at M&S.

One source says that Heere will bring an international point of view to M&S and be better able to balance the needs of head office with the needs of the markets it operates in. “In the past M&S just pushed out product that has done well in the UK and wasn’t tuned into how that would go in a particular market. Jan will be much better at understanding local needs.”

Having managed to achieve this balance in Inditex, a business renowned for retaining central control despite its global reach, should mean he is well placed to do the same within M&S and manage the challenges of driving growth within the confines of what is still a complex and political organisation.

While Bolland has signalled that international growth forms a central part of his plans for M&S, there has been little in the way of specifics so far about which countries are to be targeted. Heere will have a big part to play in shaping the strategy and which directions the company goes in on its global odyssey. He is likely to have much more freedom and say over the plans than the last dedicated international director Carl Leaver, who in the words of one observer close to M&S, found himself “hitting his head against a brick wall.”

Described as charming and urbane, Heere is spoken highly of by those who know him. And whichever countries M&S does decide to open in, there’s a very good chance he’ll have the advantage of being able to speak the local language.