Marks and Spencer CEO Steve Rowe. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE
Marks and Spencer CEO Steve Rowe. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE

London — The CEO of Marks & Spencer is to assume direct leadership of the British retailer's troubled clothing business after sacking the division's boss.

Jill McDonald, clothing, home and beauty MD, is leaving the business after less than two years in the job, M&S said on Thursday. Group CEO Steve Rowe will take over the leadership of the division directly in the near term, it added.

“The business now needs to move on at pace to address long-standing issues in our clothing and home supply chain around availability and flow of product,” said Rowe.

“Given the importance of this task to M&S I will be overseeing this programme directly.”

Rowe did praise McDonald for strengthening the clothing team, improving the quality and style of product and setting a clear direction for the business to attract a younger family age customer.

McDonald joined M&S in October 2017 to take on one of the biggest jobs in British fashion, having previously been the CEO of bicycles and car parts company Halfords. Her appointment raised questions from some because she had no clothing retail experience.

After several failed relaunches over the past decade, the jury is out on whether the 135-year-old M&S can rise to the challenges posed by fast-fashion chains such as Zara and H&M in its clothing business.

M&S set out its latest turnaround plan shortly after retail veteran Archie Norman became chair in September 2017 to work alongside Rowe, who became CEO in 2016 and has been with the company three decades.

In May, M&S reported a third straight drop in annual profit and its shares are down 30% from a year ago.

McDonald was a Rowe hire. On appointment he highlighted her “fantastic customer insight” and a wealth of operational, retail and leadership experience developed at Halfords and fast-food giant McDonald's.

M&S' clothing and home like-for-like sales fell 1.6% in its 2018/2019 year.

Notable by omission

At the group's annual meeting on Tuesday Rowe said it had been a “troubled year” for the clothing and home business.

He said M&S had developed a strong team in clothing, name checking 2018 hires Jill Stanton, women's and kid's director, and Wes Taylor, the menswear director for bringing more than 60 years clothing experience to the business.

However, McDonald's name was notable by omission from Rowe's speech.

The CEO said that while M&S had improved its clothing ranges in terms of fit, style and value for money it still had significant issues with availability.

“I think here we've done much of the hard work on style and fit and it's the process that we need to change,” Rowe said.

“Further work [is needed] on getting size ratios correct, making sure we reduce the number of lines we’re running so we can buy deeper, concentrating on the big lines that we’re famous for across the UK,” he said.

Rowe forecast an improvement by the autumn.

Industry publication Drapers reported in June that Topshop fashion director Maddy Evans was leaving the company to join M&S in a senior buying role. M&S declined to comment on that report.