Magazine article Management Today

The MT Interview: Marc Bolland

Magazine article Management Today

The MT Interview: Marc Bolland

Article excerpt

The CEO designate of M&S made his name transforming Morrisons from a dowdy northern chain into the supermarket superstar of the downturn. Here, the ex-brewer from the Netherlands explains the modus operandi that he will use to sell smalls and ready meals in his new job.

Heavy traffic in south-west London means I'm late meeting Marc Bolland, chief executive of Morrisons and the man who, a couple of weeks after we meet, is revealed as the successor to Sir Stuart Rose at Marks & Spencer. I'm due at Morrisons' Wimbledon store: not so long ago that wouldn't have been possible. Morrisons, run by Sir Ken Morrison - whose father founded the business from a Bradford market stall in 1899 - was a North of England firm. The idea of it having a branch in refined SW19 was unthinkable.

The firm sold itself on Yorkshire thrift, providing basic food at low prices - nothing fancy or expensive. And it did brilliantly. Under Sir Ken, the company joined the stock market and created hundreds of outlets. Then, in 2004, he bought Safeway. Predominantly southern-based, Safeway was much bigger than its Northern rival. Although it had fallen on hard times, it was perceived - from an arrogant, Southern viewpoint - as smarter and more upmarket.

The industry and media had a field day, smirking at the tyke flatcaps invading the sophisticated south. Researchers were dispatched to the north and came back with tales of shops stocking giant Yorkshire puddings, plate-sized pies and enormous cakes. The firm's traditionally strong position in MT's Britain's Most Admired Companies awards took a pasting, too. From a pre-merger high of ninth overall in 2003, Morrisons fell to 186th in 2007 as it struggled to integrate Safeway. But it's back on the rise, up to 109th last year and 45th this year. It can't be long before Morrisons is in the top 10 once more.

At the time, Sir Ken stood accused of the cardinal sin of believing he could bridge a great cultural divide. Yet here I am, in the centre of Wimbledon, where it's impossible to miss the Morrisons. Part of a newish development, the store is next to the Odeon cinema, on a prime site facing the main street. It's all steel and glass. There's an airy cafe by the entrance. This supermarket is slick and modern, and very London.

Because I'm late, Bolland is also impossible to miss. He has had the pictures taken and is standing inside the shop doorway on his own. He's tall, suave and elegant. His hair is brushed back and he's wearing a simple but expensive-looking two-piece pinstripe suit. His silk tie is knotted tightly, just so.

He was born in 1959, in Holland. It's obvious that he has got that easy informality and jocularity but underlying intellectual seriousness of the Dutch. His eyes twinkle good-humouredly.

What is it about the Dutch? Years of camping in Europe have taught me that although they may appear casual on the outside and can hold their own with the English in terms of wit and drinking, they also possess a ruthless drive and efficiency. On holiday, the latter expressed itself in the washing-up and shower areas, where they displayed a zeal for cleanliness that was quite alien to the lazy English.

So it is with Bolland. He's smiling but he wants me to take in and understand what Morrisons is about. Partly, it's to ensure that I see for myself and don't slip back into stereotyping.

'The first thing I want to show you is here,' he says, pointing to a fresh salad bar and an assistant at work behind it. 'You see that man there, he's preparing fresh pizzas for our pizza offering. He's using the same vegetables that we use in our salads - all fresh.'

Next to him, another worker takes a rack of pies out of an oven. 'Those pies have been made here, on the premises. In the past, they were made off-site. Now they're all fresh.' He adds in his soft accent: 'Others are not doing this.'

Bolland leads me to the chicken counter. …

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