01 Dec 2017

In My Humble Opinion: Truth Teller

A ‘turnaround king’ tackles Marks & Spencer
by Julia Hanna


photo by Clara Molden / Camera Press / Redux

Corporate turnarounds aren’t known for being a walk in the park. “Anybody who does what I do has to be incredibly resolute, to the point of bloody-minded, about the need to fracture an organization’s comfort zone and challenge the usual way of doing things,” says Archie Norman (MBA 1979). “The genesis of any turnaround is facing into the unvarnished truth.”

A somewhat unwilling veteran of doing “the hard things,” Norman became chairman of 133-year-old British retailer Marks & Spencer in September. While it’s impossible to generalize the process, he cites the importance of being open-minded, listening, and recognizing that turnarounds take time. “Instant change is no change,” he says—though the process still requires operating with a sense of urgency. “This is not the last chance saloon, but the clock is ticking, and there are very hard yards ahead,” he says of the iconic brand. “What’s important to me is the satisfaction of seeing an organization that has been failing for years become a great place to work, from the shop floor all the way on up, and produce a great result for shareholders.”

First job: “Shifting muck” on a pig farm at 14 or 15. “You had to have a good bath when you got home.”

Morning routine: None. “I work in two or three different offices, and the nature of what I do is perpetually changing.”

Prime time: “I’m not going to get into top gear before I’ve had a stiff cup of coffee. I really get going by about midmorning, and I’m firing on all cylinders in the evening—but that doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else.”

Getaway: A cottage in Yorkshire with springer spaniels and horses.

Equine escape: “If you’re riding, you have to concentrate on the horse, which is much bigger and stronger than you are. Then there’s the adrenaline factor. If you’re coming up to a big hedge, you’re not thinking about what’s going on in the office. You’re wondering whether you’re going to get to the other side.”

Successful turnarounds: Five and counting: Kingfisher (retail), Asda (supermarkets), Energis (telecom), Coles Supermarkets in Australia, and the media company ITV.

Unsuccessful: The Conservative Party, where he served as an MP from 1996 to 2005. “While I was there, we became very good at losing elections, and politics in the UK is binary. Either you’re in power or you’re out of power, and if you’re out of power you don’t get to do very much.”

Number of work trips Down Under: 62 and counting. “When you think about it—and it’s probably best not to—I’ve spent about four months of my life on a plane to Australia.”

That nickname: “I don’t think I’m a ‘turnaround king.’ My problem is that for some reason nobody ever offered me a normal job. Obviously, it would be much nicer to be the chairman or CEO of a high-performing business that floats gently upward. I do what I do because the river carries you in a certain direction.”

And there’s an upside: “If you get it right, you see much more dramatic change than you would in a steady-state type of business. It’s exhilarating to see what’s possible when people look into the abyss of failure and take it into their own hands to create real change.”

Industry intel: “I think the script is written for retail. In both food and fashion, we’re still far from the ceiling when it comes to the online and home delivery trend. That’s a profit-eroding migration, and it doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to exploit that movement. But the industry overall is walking up a down escalator.”

Why Marks & Spencer: “It’s a terrific British brand with a lot of goodwill that has drifted over the past 15 years. But it has a new CEO who’s very keen to grasp the nettles, and the board is fully faced into the issues. So here we go again.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1979, Section D

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