The departure of M&S general merchandise boss John Dixon set hares running about succession at retail’s closest equivalent to royalty.

The departure of M&S general merchandise boss John Dixon set hares running about leadership succession at retail’s closest equivalent to royalty.

While retailers and observers delight in gossiping about who the frontrunners might be to replace Marc Bolland, there seems unlikely to be a vacancy in the near future – that’s why Dixon decided to move on.

Now that some of his efforts are starting to bear fruit after hard yards, he seems likely to remain in post for some time to enjoy the halo of any successes he can claim credit for.

But as Dixon departs, succession contender Steve Rowe emerges with his status enhanced.

He has done a good job keeping up momentum at M&S’s food division – originally turned around by Dixon of course – and will now move across to run general merchandise.

If he can do the same there, building on the foundations of improvement that seem to have been laid, then his position will be even stronger.

Bringing trading nous, a common touch and steeped in the culture and values that originally made M&S great. He may not yet tick every box but he would be a serious contender to run the retailer.

What it takes to lead

But the succession debate raises again the perennial question: what does it take, and who does it take, to lead a business that is as much a national as a high street institution?

It takes a very particular type of leader.

Someone who can bear the weight of retail history upon their shoulders and live up to a heritage that must sometimes seem as much a burden as a boon.

Someone who can keep the retailer’s culture and values relevant in a rapidly changing retail landscape, who can initiate change without throwing the business baby out with the bathwater.

Someone too who can perform in the glare of public scrutiny from the City and the media as well as the sort of vocal customers who turn up at the AGM every year to bemoan the lack of sleeved dresses.

Internal or outside candidate?

So when eventually the time comes for someone new to take the helm at M&S, the debate will be the same as it has been before.

Will success be best delivered by an outsider or an internal candidate? Does it need someone who, as Dixon was described, is almost a member of the retailer’s famous Sieff family in all but name? Or another Bolland, brought in to offer a fresh perspective?

The answer to that question is likely to depend on the ultimate verdict on Bolland’s tenure when he does stand down.

If in retrospect judgement is kind, M&S may well choose to look beyond its existing talent once again. And how will the internal succession candidates react to that?