Despite getting Marks & Spencer’s food back on track and a promotion to the board, some say it’s too soon to start talking up Dixon as Sir Stuart Rose’s successor. George MacDonald reports
Dismissively described little more than a year ago as Sir Stuart Rose’s “bag carrier”, John Dixon now looks like an increasingly serious contender in the Marks & Spencer succession race.
Dixon, an Marks & Spencer “lifer” who was parachuted in to take charge of food in July last year following the disastrous tenure of predecessor Steve Esom, was last week promoted to the retailer’s board.
His appointment as executive director, food, prompted a fresh round of speculation about who was best placed to replace Rose as chief executive. Bookmaker Paddy Power shortened its odds on Dixon from 4/1 to 5/2 – the 41-year-old leapfrogging Sainsbury’s boss Justin King to become the favourite.
Some also believe that Dixon may be Rose’s favourite among the internal contenders to succeed him. The bag carrier jibe came because Dixon was formerly Rose’s executive assistant – a role he held from 2004 until 2007, when he became director of Marks & Spencer Direct.
The position of executive assistant is not the glorified secretary’s job that some make out. One observer says it is a “pivotal role that Marks & Spencer uses to identify future stars”. Dixon’s subsequent moves into high-profile and strategically central positions – first multichannel, then home, now food – seems to reinforce that view.
As boss of Marks & Spencer’s food division, Dixon – whose father also worked for the retailer – has won respect for the changes he has made. Although most, including Dixon himself, acknowledge there is more to do, improvements in availability, product innovation and value have all been achieved.
Collins Stewart analyst Greg Lawless says: “He hit the ground running and stopped the rot, but Marks & Spencer food isn’t fixed yet.”
But while he has done very well, how likely is the prospect of Dixon moving into the chief executive’s seat next year? The answer is, not very. The importance of food to Marks & Spencer has traditionally been recognised with a place at the boardroom table so Dixon’s elevation is in keeping with past practice.
And, while well regarded as a retail operator, Dixon’s range of experience is not yet as wide as would be needed to become a chief executive, never mind chief executive of Marks & Spencer – which has been described as one of the most difficult jobs in Britain.
One retail headhunter observes: “He has a nice mix of strategic and operational skills. He’s not the charismatic man of the people, but he’s not the analytical type stuck in his office with the door closed. He’s an impressive guy who deserves his promotion.
“But he doesn’t have much of an external profile, he’s not well known. Being chief executive would be a heck of task for someone who doesn’t have experience of the City and being accountable to institutional investors.”
One retail analyst who knows Dixon says: “He’s very measured. He’s interested in listening to other people’s opinions. He’s very commercial. He’s got gravitas. I get the impression that people like working for him. But it’s too soon for him to become chief executive. There are stronger external candidates, particularly Andy Bond.”
As well as those from outside Marks & Spencer, Dixon will be up against internal contenders such as finance boss Ian Dyson and general merchandise supremo Kate Bostock.
It is possible that John Dixon might become chief executive of Marks & Spencer but, despite his skills and his odds-on bookies’ ranking, don’t bet on it.
Odds on Marks & Spencer leadership contenders
5/2 John Dixon
3/1 Justin King
4/1 Ian Dyson
7/1 Kate Bostock
8/1 Steve Rowe
9/1 Andy Bond
10/1 Charles Wilson
10/1 Kate Swann
14/1 Andrew Skinner
14/1 Simon Fox
16/1 Steven Sharp
18/1 Sir David Michels
18/1 John Peace
20/1 Sir Terry Leahy
25/1 David Tyler