The future of Marks & Spencer’s clothing chief has been thrown into doubt amid suggestions that she may be on the verge of leaving the company after less than two years.
Sky News has learnt Jill McDonald could step down as the company’s managing director for clothing, home and beauty amid ongoing challenges to the recovery of its most important business unit.
One adviser to M&S said it was not certain Ms McDonald would leave her post but conceded that there was a reasonable prospect of her doing so.
When asked several times on Wednesday night whether Ms McDonald was leaving M&S, the company declined to comment.
If Ms McDonald was to leave the company in the near future, her exit would be interpreted as a blow to Steve Rowe, M&S’s chief executive.
Mr Rowe announced in May 2017 that her recruitment had been sealed by her “first-class customer knowledge and great experience in running dynamic, high-achieving teams”.
In turn, the former McDonald’s UK boss, who joined M&S from the cycling retailer Halfords – where she had been chief executive – described the UK’s most talked-about retailer as “a career opportunity that I just couldn’t turn down”.
One former M&S executive said Ms McDonald, who is not on its main board, had been forced to grapple with the company’s often-bureaucratic culture and byzantine web of supplier relationships.
If her departure is confirmed – and no successor is announced – it could leave a vacuum at the top of M&S’s most important unit and raise renewed questions about its ability to transform the division’s performance.
Prior to Ms McDonald’s arrival, Mr Rowe – an M&S veteran – had directly overseen the clothing division himself, and may assume control of it again.
Investors are likely to scrutinise any announcement – if it comes – about leadership changes for clues about the state of M&S’s clothing business.
However, it is unlikely to avoid diminishing confidence in the company’s turnaround plan given Ms McDonald’s seniority and her relatively brief tenure in the job.
In full-year results announced in May, M&S said UK clothing and home revenues had fallen 3.6%, with like-for-like revenues down 1.6%, although it pointed to an improvement in gross margin.
The company added that “weak availability…as we sold out of a number of fast-selling lines” had hampered its performance.
M&S has also been focused on its acquisition of a 50% stake in Ocado’s UK operations for up to £750m.
A rights issue to raise just over £600m was completed last month, and the new joint venture – which will trade as Ocado.com but sell M&S-branded food products – will become operational next year.
Mr Rowe described the deal as “transformational”, although some shareholders and analysts have questioned the price being paid by M&S.
More broadly, the high street bellwether has been pursuing a restructuring programme for the last few years as it seeks to keep pace with a fast-changing retail climate.
Scores of stores have already been closed, while Mr Rowe told investors at M&S’s annual general meeting this week that the current proposal to close 110 shops was “not finite”.
In total, the company has incurred restructuring charges of more than £1.5bn during the last four years, a grim figure which has decimated profits and contributed to a dividend cut.
However, M&S has also promised to deliver cost savings of at least £350m within two years.
Its struggles have echoed those of the wider high street, with rivals including Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group and Debenhams forced to turn to varying forms of insolvency mechanism in a bid to survive.
In addition to the appointment of retail veteran Archie Norman as chairman nearly two years ago, M&S’s board has been strengthened by the arrival of Justin King – the architect of a successful turnaround of J Sainsbury – as a non-executive director.
M&S is not due to update the City on its trading performance again until November, when it reports half-year results.
However, any marked deterioration in trading before then could force it to downgrade investors’ expectations about this financial year’s profits.
Shares in M&S closed on Wednesday at 210.2p, giving the company a market value of just over £4bn.