Marks & Spencer has promoted food chief John Dixon, a leading contender to succeed chief executive Sir Stuart Rose, to the board with immediate effect.

Dixon, who became Marks & Spencer’s director of food in July 2008, has now become executive director, food.

Rose, who has controversially combined the roles of chief executive and chairman since last year, will step down as chief executive by July 2010.

Other internal succession candidates include fashion boss Kate Bostock and finance director Ian Dyson. Dixon’s star has risen rapidly however, following improvements at the food division after he was parachuted in to turn it around following former food supremo Steven Esom’s stewardship.

Rose said: “We are delighted to welcome John to the board. Since becoming director of food, John and his team have greatly improved our food business, changed perceptions of our value, and introduced a host of hugely popular innovations.” 

Despite Dixon’s rapid ascent, leading City analysts have voiced scepticism that he has all the experience necessary to run M&S.

Dixon joined M&S in 1986 as a store management trainee. Prior to becoming director of food, he was director of home and M&S Direct.

Last week, Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin Kingdampened speculation that he is a leading contender for the M&S role, telling Sky News that he is committed to grocer.