Experts urge M&S to rethink people policy

Embattled high street retailer Marks & Spencer needs to take HR seriously if it is to have any chance of regaining former glories, experts have warned.

The call came after last week’s announcement of a wide-ranging management shake-up designed to address falling sales, which included the immediate departure of HR director, Jean Tomlin.

Pre-tax profits for the six months to 2 October fell to £292.7m, down from £325m a year ago, while like-for-like UK sales Ð which ignore new store openings Ð fell by 4 per cent.

HR consultant Paul Kearns, who has worked with M&S in the past, said: “I have never seen the HR team get to grips with the issues that are affecting the company. HR has never been seen as a contributor for change.”

Kearns, who stressed that his comments were not a direct criticism of Tomlin but of the general culture at M&S, said some of the major problems at the retailer could be addressed by HR Ð something he suggests chief executive Stuart Rose may not grasp.

“Rose is a classic example of a chief executive who has no understanding about strategic HR. You can turn a business around by cutting costs, but the likes of M&S need HR-driven change,” he said.

Other observers were more optimistic about the prospects for M&S, citing the decision to replace Tomlin with former Arcadia HR director Keith Cameron Ð who comes out of retirement to take the role Ð as a good move.

“Having somebody like Cameron on board means HR is going to be far more central than ever before,” an industry source said.

The source, who has worked with former M&S HR professionals, said morale in HR in previous years had been at rock bottom at times, but backed Cameron to turn things around.

“He’s one of the most self-effacing senior HR guys I know. M&S will be all the better for him being there,” he said.

However, a spokeswoman for Marks & Spencer said: “HR matters have always been incredibly important to us and that fact has not changed. We dispute any claims to the contrary.”

HR past and present

Who is Keith Cameron?

The new HR director at Marks & Spencer has plenty of retail experience, having held roles at Levi’s, Dixons, BHS, Burton, Debenhams and Arcadia (where he briefly worked under long-time friend Stuart Rose) before retiring two years ago.

Among other interests he is chairman of Wensleydale Railway, a company formed in 2000 by a long-standing association of rail enthusiasts.

Who is Jean Tomlin?

Tomlin took charge of HR at M&S in March 2003, reporting directly to chief executive Roger Holmes, and sitting on the group operating committee.

She joined from the Corporate Services Group, where she was HR and development director. Prior to this, she was the HR director at Egg, and has also held HR and sales roles at Ford and Prudential.

Compared to HR directors at rival retailers, such as Asda and Tesco, Tomlin was low-profile, preferring to stay out of the media spotlight and rarely speaking at conferences.

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