Sieff's despair at lack of 'probing' at M&S

Sir David Sieff is the last of the Marks & Spencer old guard. He spent 40 years at the family business, but since retiring in 2001 watched with frustration as founding principles were junked in favour of a chase for fool's gold.

'The principles have applied since the company was founded, so to anybody who says I am out of touch, I'd say rubbish,' said Sieff. 'The principles that Simon Marks and Israel Sieff (David's grandfather) established were modernised until we became the second most profitable retailer in the world.'

Listening to customers, talking to staff and working with suppliers was the gospel that enabled M&S to live up to its credo of quality, value and service.

However, Sieff accepts some blame for the creeping culture of arrogance that took hold across the business.

He said: 'It started in the 1990s, when some people began to forget what the business was based on. They thought it was old-fashioned, paternalistic, and they knew better. This is not an attack on Derek Rayner or Rick Greenbury, but all of us must share the blame. We did not move with the times because we thought we knew better.'

Sieff helped to recruit ex-Carrefour star Luc Vandevelde as chairman, but describes the Belgian as a 'big disappointment'.

'Luc and Roger (Holmes) inherited something they hadn't created. They were not able to begin to take it back to its former glory, and I think part of the reason was they didn't understand what made M&S tick. (Over time) we stopped listening to our customers, we stopped probing and finding out what customers were buying,' Sieff said.

To probe was a sacred verb in the M&S lexicon, as defined by Lord Sieff (see memo, left) in 1958 and circulated to staff by Lord Rayner as still relevant in 1984. 'I don't think anyone knows what probing is anymore,' Sieff said.

Sieff questions the logic of abandoning the St Michael own-brand label.

'They have thrown away the greatest trade name in the world. I would go back into business if I could own St Michael. Could you imagine Chanel throwing away Chanel?'

'I am sad because I am of the generation that has watched M&S lose its unique position and I don't believe it need have happened,' he concluded.