Wednesday, 30 May 2018


After my last piece on M&S I noticed Julian Richer, the CEO and  100% shareholder of market leading Richer Sounds was acting as a consultant and mentor to Steve Rowe the M&S CEO.

Julian is a corporate rock star and runs a brilliant company. However I cannot think of two businesses less alike than Richer Sounds and M&S.

And Julian is a man.

Another man to join the man-heavy senior team.

Surely the advice it most needs is from a just retired opinionated and energetic woman?

And Julian is not a woman.

Monday, 28 May 2018


I know…from art to retailing requires a leap of faith.

I’ve just been to the Monet exhibition at the National Gallery. The 70 paintings there would sell for over $1 billion yet he found it hard even selling his work until his mid-40s when sales took off with vivid Mediterranean coastline paintings which Americans loved.

Claude’s story matches that of most artists that we now rate as great with only a few becoming truly rich from their endeavours whilst young enough to enjoy it. Most relied on finding a sugar daddy or patron but the market itself was harsh. Yet they carried on tirelessly and in the case of Monet painting the same scene at different times of the day when the lighting was different.  In painting Rouen Cathedral he sat in a ladies changing room of a department store opposite the cathedral, ladies curtained off of course, and painted dawn to dusk.

Artists in general are not especially commercial, entrepreneurial or productive…they just carry on doing what they do regardless always trying to get better. For them quality beats cash any time. Money merely seems to be inconvenient (mostly by its absence.) And a century after they die their work (like ‘NymphĂ©as en fleur’) can sell for $85 million.

But it isn’t money you think about when you think of Monet, it’s the light, the colours the sheer joie de vivre.

And that’s what’s missing from M&S - retail bellwether, housewives’ favourite, the Monet of underwear. Unlike Monet its value is declining.  Unlike Monet it is no longer notable for its light, colour or joie de vivre. It’s about to depart the FTSE 100, close a dozen or more stores and ‘unify brand and culture’ (I really wish that I knew what that meant). The iron hand of Archie Norman, the man who saved Asda 27 years ago is Chairman. He is a McKinsey trained heavy who seemed short on small talk when I met him.

For years M&S has been a bit like the Brexiteers chasing new business in young markets unknown to them but “representing huge, yes huge and incalculable opportunities”, rather  than focusing on their core old market of loyalists– around 20 million of them. Instead it keeps on going hopefully after the deaf, dumb and blind kids like millennials who would rather be seen dead than in M&S. Because M&S is like grandad doing the twist.

M&S matters because when it does things well, like much of its food, like cashmere, socks, underwear or cords it does them rather well. When it flirts with the unknown it’s sorrowfully irrelevant. I shall watch its strategy of downsizing and trying to find an authentic voice intriguing but without much hope. M&S has stopped learning it seems.

Monet kept on learning. He has colour and energy. His pictures are timeless. M&S is not. Tom Peters said “you can’t shrink your way to greatness”. On that Monet and I (but not M&S) agree.

Monday, 21 May 2018


These are not good times to be huge sprawling corporations. Nicholas Bloom an economist from Stanford University has consistently judged Brexit as the biggest shock to the economic system in recent history. It is, he believes, especially serious for big companies whose global networks make the prevailing uncertainty astonishingly time consuming and immobilising. Skyscrapers withstand tornados less stoutly than bungalows.

It’s sprawl more than scale that is the biggest issue with  a legion of corporate car crashes in 2018 (Maplin, Toys R Us, Carillion) with more to come -– all the mediocre restaurant chains, middle of the road fashion chains, department stores and the cheap and rather miserable like Carpet Right – all are heading towards the scaffold.

Incidentally I thought the Commons Select Committee who described Philip Green, Carillion’s Chairman as “delusional” had barefaced cheek. Politicians are the most delusional breed there is – look at Chris Grayling and his train fiascos.

And things will get worse.

I am reminded of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” – read it,  it’s wonderful. In it he writes:
“Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

Isn’t that simple word “mere” devastating. Understatement can kill and here it does. We are ourselves undergoing “mere anarchy” right now. The big , the sprawling, the delusional giants who fail to invest enough in capital equipment and people, who are just making do to make the numbers. Yes, all those big retailers soon to become even bigger when another dinosaur is born called (as if) Asdainbury’s.

The era of the dinosaur is past. That vicious word the nearly-rich in business schools use as an acid test of a business -  “scalability” - belongs to the dustbin of history. As I look at the list of those businesses in imminent peril I feel sorry for the poor souls working there and waiting for their execution. Businesses that are  too big, too greedy, too indifferent to quality and their customers.

And things will get better.

2018 is predicted to be a record for UK start-ups at well over 600,000 and at the global level Canada Sweden and China are now showing as top start-up centres. So it’s not all about the USA and Silicon Valley anymore.

 As the giants stumble a new breed of entrepreneurial talent and start-ups trying to do something new, different and brilliant are emerging. The creative constipation that great size induces will cease. The new generation, not of snowflakes but instead of snowballs, are going to roll over the stumbling giants.

Much as I hate the reckless waste of Brexit I see the damage it causes opening up opportunities for the smaller, local, start-ups setting off with modest ambitions. Brexiteers only asked to “have the bloody doors blown off” but the impact is much greater than that.

Yeats went on …”The ceremony of innocence is drowned”…and so it is. The gullibility of the giants’ boom years is history too because remember: Davids beat Goliaths.

Monday, 14 May 2018


I recently noticed a book called “Factfulness” by the late Hans Rosling, that great Swedish presenter of statistics. From beyond the grave he continues to preach the message that things are better than you think.

Yet the name of book struck me and not in an altogether agreeable way. It had a touch of the ghastly Gradgrind about it, compounded by the publisher’s by-line – “10 reasons we’re wrong about the world”. Like influenza the tendency to reduce everything to ten ways or reasons is catching – to lose weight, to be a better leader, to avoid stress and so on.

By reducing everything to facts and “must-do’s” we’re missing the magic of life. Magic doesn’t always lie in the most obvious places. Dorling Kindersley’s books help you “do” a city but on hearing this they’ll create series called “The Top Ten Secrets of Venice– places to go your friends will miss”. It’ll be a boon to tourist-one-upmanship.

So what is magic? It’s when creation plays a trick on you, arm wrestling your imagination into delighted  and surprised submission. It happens every Spring. It happens watching a brook bubbling as you stand on a bridge, it happens when you read a gripping book and forget where or who you are. Magic transports you. Magic simply delights.  And it requires two sides for it to happen. So moving on to “Quantum Theory”:  if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it does it make a sound? Or is sound something magical that exists in our heads?

The problem with concepts like “factfulness” are that they thrive in a world of totalitarian left-brain thinking. No one who advocates the been-there-done-that style of living would believe it to be productive sitting and looking at that tree for an hour or more letting one’s mind drift and one’s ears hear the sound of breeze and leaves and of birdsong. Productive is a derogatory word because does our world actually have to be increasingly productive?

Isabella Tree has written a book called “Wilding”.  It makes one question what progress really means. It’s about Knepp Castle and its 3,500 acre estate just south of Horsham in West Sussex. It has been in family ownership  for 500 years and as a farm  had become increasingly loss-making. She and her husband in despair were driven to cut costs to the bone and see how nature farmed instead. Over the past decade it’s been left on its own apart from the introduction of some classic, old, wild breeds of cattle, pigs, deer, horses and so on. Nature keeps on hitting the back of the net.  Whilst  in the modern vast tracks of arable land birds and bees are in plummeting decline, at Knepp they are breeding,  thriving and diversifying.

Magic is happening in front of their eyes. It could happen in front of ours too if we looked patiently at the wonder of nature rather than just creating action plans.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018


Rich Victorians loved to tour Europe on a protracted culture fest. Today it’s over rather faster but there are strange moments of similarity to my recent experience.

It was a four night trip to Assisi birthplace of St. Francis and Clare and with Assisi itself an undisturbed medieval town.

It was the 20 hours of getting there and back that surprised my medieval  body. Whilst the journey was seamless and punctual - just a 1000 miles - in Chaucer’s time half a century after Francis, pilgrimages were undertaken with more freedom of spirit than we jetsetters experience today.

We hit the Calendimaggio in Assisi, a festival recreating medieval Assisi with constant contests between the two parts of the town – the Basilica of St Francis on the lower west side and The Cathedral of San Rufino on the higher eastern part of the town - singing, verbal sparring, drama and drumming.

Nearly everyone is dressed in elaborate medieval costumes and vast pantomimes of activity occur involving huge stage sets on wheels. You can’t move for knights, Saracens, virgins , nobles. It’s like being backstage at a grandiose performance of an ambitious Hollywood film.

After the last night the performers’ celebrations continued until after 4pm with raucous singing and increasingly drunken and erratic drumming throughout the streets. The next day Assisi was quiet with lots of pale faces, dark glasses and “postumi della sbornia” (hangovers).

These exuberant celebrations apart what did Assisi really provide?

First of all the eyes – a terraced hill town with gorgeous pink and white stonework overlooking a verdant plain below. It’s very old and feels it. Even modern commercialism has failed to spoil it.

Second the stomach – wonderful low-cost, inventive Italian food and wine.

Third the weather – pretty much non-stop drizzle, occasional heavy rain and mist.

Fourth, and tellingly, the spirit – it was impossible not to blown away by the sacred specialness of the place where the most extraordinary story of self-deprivation and focused holiness was being enacted in the early 13th century – think Robin Hood and you’ve got the timing about right. The parts of Assisi that took my breath away were San Damiano where Clare and her entourage of poor nuns were based – her own church with its extraordinary crypt Chiesa di Santa Chiara, the Hermitage where Francis and friends went on retreat – it’s quite extraordinarily mystic, over 1500 feet up high over a densely forested gorge  and the town’s cathedral San Rufino with its crypt which has Roman remains making even 1200 seem very modern.  The upper and lower Basilica and Francis’ tomb are the knockout landmarks but they moved me less as crowds of singing pilgrims and noisy schoolchildren marched down the hill towards them.

Peace, devotion, authenticity and quiet surprises were what I savoured most in Assisi.

It was worth the 20 hours travel to feel so liberated from the present. I didn’t even check the news or e-mails. Who cared about them when there was this?