Can Marks & Spencer’s new CFO make his mark, and spark a return to the FTSE100?
Alastair Barlow examines the history of M&S leading up to its recent deterioration and loss of CFO Humphrey Singer.
Every adult knows Marks & Spencer. Although not everyone will love it; my childhood memories include being dragged around M&S, House of Fraser and Jenners on Princes Street (being very bored)!
However, not everyone may realise that this retailer was the first one to make £1bn pre-tax profits or that they fell out the FTSE100 for the first time (in its 35 year existence) last September – shortly thereafter their CFO resigned, after only 14 months in post.
So, who has the job of taking it back into the FTSE100 and how are they going to do that?
Well, to give you some size and scale, Marks & Spencer is primarily based in the UK, sells into 57 countries from 1,487 stores, and 35 websites around the world. They employ over 80,000 people who serve about 32 million customers. They’re focused on delivering quality products at great value for money. Below are some relevant points before we get into the role of the outgoing and incoming CFOs.
The rise, fall and uncertainties of Marks & Spencer
- Based on a reputation of selling British quality goods M&S grew from humble beginnings in 1884 to become a staple on the UK high-street
- In 1997 it was the first British retailer to make a pre-tax profit of over £1bn
- Shortly thereafter results plummeted to a relative-low in 2001 of just 10% what they were a few years before
- Arcadia failed a takeover in 2004; M&S announced a recovery plan and sold off M&S Money to HSBC
- Steve Rowe took over as CEO on 1 February 2016
- Helen Weir, resigned as CFO in March 2018 and Humphrey Singer was appointed in July 2018
- A wave of store closures, management changes and transformation programme followed
- In September 2019, the high-street retailer is demoted outside the FTSE100 for the first time since its inception, over 30 years ago
- Humphrey Singer resigns just 14 months after being in the post; officially left on 31 December 2019 (making that four CFOs in the space of six years; Alan Stewart, Helen Weir, Humphrey Singer, David Surdeau)
- Eoin Tonge will make that five when he joins in June 2020.
The fall and fall of Marks & Spencer’s share price
The fall and fall of Marks & Spencer’s profit before tax
The CFO role
As I’ve said many times before, the role of the CFO is wide and encompassing and the CFO is taking on more and more. It’s a relatively lonely position because of the technical background they possess. At M&S, Singer was officially responsible for “group financial performance, IT, investor relations and data governance.”
Data in a retailer is everything. Managing financial data is one thing across countries and verticals but the operational data from 32 million customers is huge. Ensuring single-version, high-quality data that is well-governed is a role in itself and using this huge volume of data to drive insight is absolutely key to a retailer.
It’s reported that “nothing sinister” happened and Singer’s exit was due to the intensive nature of the restructuring underway. However, he was also seemingly key in the Ocado joint venture and this may have been where he dropped the ball in the eyes of Chairman, Archie Norman.
In order to fund the Ocado deal, M&S issued a £600m rights issue at a significant discount, which ultimately pushed it outside the FTSE100. However, the deal (discussed in more detail below), could well be one of the most significant to maintain relevance in this new digital world.
I will say it again, the role of the CFO is all-encompassing; from financial performance, IT, data, investor relations, analytics, business-wide performance and, as we’ll see below, large-scale transformation programmes. It’s a good reminder to self-assess how far-reaching your own CFO skillset is and how you are going about maintaining relevance.
What game is M&S in?
While it is probably best known for good quality clothing, it is in the food, clothing and home, services (M&S Bank and M&S Energy) and property businesses. But what sells the most? Well, in fact it’s food! In 2019 they sold £5.9bn of food compared to £3.5bn of clothing and home. This is in part thanks to the Simply Food stores.
Domestic revenue split between food and clothing/home over time
As M&S has seen the trend to food increase over time, they’ve sourced a CFO that certainly has the credentials. Incoming Tonge spent 14 years at Greencore (the sandwich group), across treasury, investor relations, group comms, grocery division MD, group strategy, corporate development director and CFO. Although, clearly Greencore is not in the public eye as much as M&S which is something Tonge will need have to acclimatise to.
Where are the synergies in a food business and a clothing/home business? Well, they essentially sell their products and services to the same customer demographic and benefit from leveraging this same customer data. Like most large groups, it is investing in data analytics and digital capabilities to create a strong customer insight function to better leverage this information to build customer loyalty, and thus increase customer lifetime value across the group.
Interestingly M&S is looking to reduce full-line stores by a net 65 over the next few years, while also looking to increase food stores by 50 – a clear signal that food will continue to increase.
On the flip side, Jill McDonald was brought in back in 2017 to head up clothing and home and beauty with zero experience in the fashion industry, she lasted just two years before she was ousted.
So, where does that leave their clothing business, the area that’s had the most criticism in recent years?
If you read Steve Rowe’s Chief Executive Statement in their 2019 Strategic Report, it’s a shopping list of management consulting projects. Like many large groups, they want to be a data-first or data-driven business; which in the world of retail is an absolute necessity. Their transformation programme crosses people, digital, property, strategy among others.
Singer’s CV highlights that he has “significant experience in delivering the transformational strategies of large listed businesses” so it’s a bit of a surprise that he left after only 14 months given his experiences would match up to the high aspirations M&S has with their change programme.
However, in Singer’s own words “The transformation taking place is of a scale, depth and pace not seen before at the company.” With his departure during the transformation programme, does it suggest that financial benefits are elusive and extreme?
I’ve highlighted just a few of their transformation projects that are more closely linked to the CFO role.
Transforming our leadership and accountability
There have been a number of changes in the leadership team. The CFO role is key in any business but even more so in a FTSE100/FTSE250 group where there are many eyes on your business and the market reacts resulting in share price fluctuations.
Becoming a digital-first retailer across M&S
This relates to the above point but whereas M&S is a DTC business, Greencore is B2B and so there are differences Tonge will need to embrace if he’s to also take on the role of data governance to help drive M&S to become digital-first.
Protecting the magic and modernising the rest in food
I wouldn’t ordinarily relate the CFO to this one but clearly Tonge has vast experience in the food industry and he’s clearly been brought in to leverage the 14 years he spent at Greencore. Expect a greater Food revenue mix going forward.
Creating a high-quality store portfolio fit for the future
Any property rationalisation, acquisition, development programme will undeniably involve the CFO assessing a multitude of aspects. I can imagine Singer amassed some good experience in this from his Dixons days but I’m not as confident Tonge will have had as much exposure.
Cost savings of at least £350m by 2020/21
With any transformation, there is the inevitable search for top-line growth, margin improvement but also other operating model cost-cutting and this one is no different. M&S is looking to chop £350m off their overheads. They could always take a leaf out of 3G Capital’s book and adopt zero-based budgeting, responsibly.
Joint venture with Ocado
The integration and synergies with the Ocado joint venture will be key to a large part of the food growth. This will be where Tonge should absolutely shine, and M&S get their money’s worth in their strategy.
I’ve always taken the view it’s much better to join a business in trouble than a business on an absolute high because you can, in theory, make a much more positive impact on the business, after, of course, making your stamp by creating a new baseline to work from.
At the end of the day, the CFO will own the benefits case. I would expect any incoming CFO to challenge someone else’s benefits case, so expect Tonge to do just that. But either way, he needs to be ready to roll up his sleeves, ruffle some feathers and make sure he delivers on the business case!
For me, transformation is now just another required skillset for the modern, progressive CFO or as the role is more commonly being renamed, Chief Performance Officer.
This will sound like a broken record (have a read of my HMV article on… err… records) but it’s another high-street retailer that has struggled to adapt to a changing environment.
However, one key difference compared to HMV (or the Kodak and Blockbuster stories) is their uniqueness; the M&S brand is built on quality, value and customer service. The other companies I’ve mentioned were largely selling commoditised products – camera film, CDs and DVDs.
HMV’s latest reincarnation appears to embrace an experiential ‘clicks and mortar’ focused strategy which is much harder to break. This is also one of its high-street neighbours saving grace; M&S has a very strong customer experience which is backed up by their high NPS score across stores and M&S.com at 68 and 54, respectively. To put this into perspective, anything above 50 is considered excellent.
Another key difference is the buyer demographics of M&S. Whereas music lovers are continually refreshing with a young entry age, M&S is more targeted towards an older population; one that’s less technologically savvy.
So, while they absolutely face competition and have seen other retailers such as Next (£9.0bn) and even Boohoo.com (£3.6bn) overtake their market valuation (£3.49bn), they still have a relatively loyal customer population… for now.
But as mentioned earlier, M&S is actually more in the food business than clothes/home business (62.5% of revenues came from food in 2019). While I’ve bought food many times in an M&S store, I confess I’ve never bought any food on M&S.com so I wasn’t aware before writing this article that it’s something people would do!
However, they may have addressed this mental block with their recent joint venture with Ocado where they acquired 50% of Ocado for a total consideration of £750m. This will see Ocado deliver M&S groceries from September 2020. Not only does this enable them to increase their grocery market share but also target synergies, understand a greater pool of customer data, reduce customer acquisition costs through leveraging their existing M&S customer database and expand sourcing agreements.
They still have a lot to do, but as a high-street retailer, it is certainly still in the game tapping straight into the superior Ocado proprietary technology. This deal has been driven by the outgoing CFO so to a certain extent, in 14 months, he’s done his job!
Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to take the top finance spot at Marks & Spencer?
It may not be the coolest brand in my opinion, but it certainly is an iconic British high-street brand. Add to that, it’s just fallen outside the FTSE100 and in the early phases of a large-scale transformation programme, it’s an awesome challenge with relatively little downside and huge upside!
I wish Tonge the best of luck – let’s hope he’s the man for the job to transform M&S alongside Steve Rowe (and that he doesn’t piss Archie Norman off!).
You might also be interested in
Alastair is founder and Chief Dreamer at flinder. flinder provides accounting, consulting and rich real-time management information for growing businesses. As well as his work with fast-growth businesses and transforming finance functions, he writes for AccountingWeb in a monthly column, sits on the ACCA Practitioner's Panel Network and was...