M&S boss Rowe sets the tone of his likely approach to leading the retailer and reviving its fashion division by going back to the shopfloor.
At 7.30am last Saturday, Steve Rowe was in a Marks & Spencer shop.
Not just any store, but the Croydon M&S store – the branch he worked in as a Saturday boy more than 25 years ago when he joined the retailer.
This time he joined the early morning staff huddle not as a callow junior, but as chief executive of one of the most venerable names in retailing and the man on whom hopes rest for a revival of M&S’s vital fashion division.
As well as delivering a bit of tonic for the troops, including at least one store staffer who worked alongside him back in 1983, Rowe also spent time with M&S shoppers in his old stamping ground.
So first thing on the first trading day of his tenure as chief executive, Rowe sent a powerful signal.
He knows that fully restoring M&S’s fortunes relies on the army of frontline staff – which these days, of course, also includes those running the online store – and, most importantly, listening to and expertly serving the needs of his 33 million customers.
The store visit set the tone for Rowe’s likely approach to leading M&S.
It helped position him at the heart of the business, at the nexus of customer, product and staff, and indicated a hands-on rather than ivory tower mindset.
That was reinforced on Monday, his first day at the boss’ desk in Paddington Basin.
Rowe revealed he will continue to directly oversee general merchandise for the “foreseeable future”, evidence of the high priority he has assigned to improving clothing performance and which will be welcomed in the City.
The focus has to be on getting general merchandise firing on all cylinders and Rowe intends to be at the centre of driving change.
“Without our customers we don’t have a business, so you’re going to hear me talk about customers a lot”
Steve Rowe, M&S
Success will depend on the reaction of the sort of customers he met in Croydon and Rowe was insistent that M&S’s shoppers would be front of mind.
He told colleagues: “Without our customers we don’t have a business, so you’re going to hear me talk about customers a lot. We not only need to listen to them, we need to learn and adapt.”
Such talk about the customer and the store visit might be viewed by the cynical as pure PR.
But the importance of putting the customer first is a retail cliché that, like most other clichés, is widespread because it is true.
As he assumes his new role, Rowe has hit the ground running. But he has been in post for less than a week, and this will be a long-distance race.
Rowe will probably be more conscious of that than anybody else, but he will also know that a new chief executive has limited time to set the tone and set the agenda.
He has successfully achieved that. From here on in it will be all about successful execution that delivers on the ambition.