Inclusive and quiet, Marks & Spencer's boss may lack the bluster of a natural born retailer, but he has brought healthy profits and a sharper image for the venerable chain. Can the man who poached Vittorio Radice from Selfridges complete the M&S metamorphosis?
It's about the size of a football, and Roger Holmes treats it as any child would treat such an object, tossing the plastic cube in the air, spinning it round. For Holmes, the chief executive of Marks & Spencer, the cube represents 'the values and strategies' of his leadership. It's covered in little slogans such as 'making aspiration and quality accessible to all'. Sitting in his office and watching this display, you wonder what his predecessors - notably the imperious Richard Greenbury - would have made of such an item. It would be anathema to them, condemned as worthless to true hard-headed retailers, an example of touchy-feely management gone mad. But that was then and this is now.
Holmes is in charge, has been for a year, and the M&S he is running today is increasingly different from the one he inherited. Pre-tax profits are up from pounds 146 million in 2001 and pounds 336 million in '02 to pounds 678 million this year. Per Una, the trendy womenswear collection, is proving a hit and the Blue Harbour menswear line is doing well. A new 'urban' range for the younger man will launch shortly. Onward goes the revolution: for women the Limited Collection of smart clothes will be offered in more stores.
And where there is still work to be done, Holmes is on the case. Dogged for months by slow sales of kids clothing, he has just appointed the ex-Gap Europe senior VP Anthony Head to do something about it.
In non-clothes, the smaller, Simply Food branches are opening at the rate of one a month. Meanwhile, larger high street stores are being revamped at a ferocious pace - in Holmes's first year, 12 million square feet has been freshened up. M&S financial services continues to grow; a new combined credit/loyalty card is being introduced. Evidence of a new, aggressive and confident M&S came with the football-style poaching of Vittorio Radice from Selfridges to head the group's home furnishings division. And ex-Go! CEO Barbara Cassani has just been made a non-executive director.
Holmes's company, says the City and acknowledge its rivals, really has turned a corner. The shares are up and, similarly, earnings per share have soared, from 0.2p in 2001 to 20.4p this year.
Yet despite the modernising revival, M&S's headquarters in London's Baker Street still bears the hallmarks of an overbearing, stuffy institution - more Civil Service, more fabric-of-the-nation than fast-moving, go-getting commercial powerhouse. How many other FTSE-100 chiefs, for example, have office doors bearing a letter and number? Down impossibly long corridors, containing identical rooms with the same doors bearing anonymous letters and numbers, you get to Holmes. His room is C159. It says so on the door.
What does it mean? Somewhere, you suspect, in Whitehall, there is a door carrying just the same, weird, Prisoner-like code. But maybe not, not in Blair's government.
And not for much longer in Holmes's court, either. Soon, the head office will relocate to Sir Richard Rogers' state-of-the-art, egalitarian palace in Paddington Basin. 'Everything we're doing is designed to create a new M&S,' says Holmes, quick to get across how the building, too, will go.
'New technology will cost a fortune to put in here,' he gestures to the decades-old floors and walls. Everything we're doing has to be consistent with a new M&S. We've got to make everything more relevant for the future.'
Close your eyes and the words start to have a familiar ring. All that's missing is 'delivery' and thunderous party conference applause. For Holmes, think Blair. In fact, you don't even need to close your eyes. …