Archie Norman: can the turnaround king save M&S?

Archie Norman © Adrian Brooks/Imagewise

Archie Norman is a retail grandee with a reputation for rescuing sinking ships. There were hopes he might do the same for Britain’s national high-street institution, but his old magic may be failing him.

Archie Norman began his retail career at Woolworths, rising to become the youngest finance director in the FTSE 100. Yet that moment of triumph, if remembered at all, has sadly been eclipsed by the ignominy of his current position as chairman of Marks & Spencer (M&S), which has just been kicked off London’s blue-chip index. The demotion is a big psychological blow for the 135-year-old national institution. It also piles pressure on Norman – a “retail grandee” renowned for pulling off “resuscitation jobs”. When he arrived two years ago, there were high hopes that he might restore M&S to its former glories, says The Sunday Times. But its shares have since fallen 37% to a 20-year low and analysts have begun muttering that this time “the turnaround king” might have “bitten off more than he can chew”.

An early bloomer

Some company chairmen are “little more than fancy window dressing”, observes The Dastardly Mr Deedes column in the Daily Mail – not “little Archie”. Shrewd and hands-on, Norman, 64, is “a boardroom heavyweight” – and “what he doesn’t know about retail probably isn’t worth knowing”. He’s always been a fast mover. The son of two doctors, he was schooled at Charterhouse, Cambridge and then Harvard. “He could hardly have wished for a better start in life” – and took full advantage. After a stint at Citibank, he joined management consultants McKinsey and – in what would become a familiar story – rose to become its “youngest ever partner” at 28. Then he jumped into retail, becoming finance director of Kingfisher (then owner of Woolworths, Comet and B&Q and Britain’s biggest retailer) at the height of Britain’s 1980s shopping boom, at the precocious age of 32.

When Norman was approached to run Asda in 1991, he accepted, later learning that “he was the only applicant”. It was soon clear why: the down-at-heel supermarket chain was on the verge of bankruptcy and staff morale had collapsed. “Norman applied eccentric, touchy-feely management gimmicks he learned at McKinsey to get employees more involved,” says the Daily Mail. They actually helped turn the ship. In fact, he had such a knack for picking talent and bringing it on that his Asda nursery spawned a generation of UK retail leaders. When he sold the rejuvenated chain to Walmart in 1999 – following a helpful bidding war with his former employer, Kingfisher – he got £6.7bn for it. Hats off.

An ill-judged foray into politics

Norman’s attempt to translate his leadership brand into politics proved less successful. After being elected Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells in 1997 (“the first ex-FTSE chair to do so”, etc) he was charged with modernising the party by the then leader, William Hague (a protégé from his McKinsey days). He got short shrift from the party’s “fossils” – and quit in 2005, “yearning for a return to business where he felt he could actually get things done”.

Norman went on to score another triumph as chairman of ITV, presiding over “a near-fourfold rise in the broadcaster’s share price”, says the Financial Times. Widely considered a frontrunner to become the next chair of the BBC, he declined to apply for the job – opting instead to perform his magic at M&S. He must be wondering about that decision now.

Norman professes to be “unruffled” by the retailer’s FTSE demotion, arguing that the same happened when he was at ITV and “the sky didn’t fall in then”, says The Observer. Indeed, you can count on him being “the last person panicking”, says the Daily Mail: “sinking ships, after all, are busy Archie’s spiritual home”. Yet even the maestro must surely admit he’s got his work cut out with this one.