Steve Rowe: Putting the customer first

Until the appointment of Roger Holmes as CEO,  Marks & Spencer chief executives have traditionally been groomed and promoted from within. It was a model that worked successfully for decades. Stuart Rose, who succeeded Roger, for all intents and purposes was grown at M&S, even though he gained external experience outside of the company.

Could it be that home grown talent just works better in certain cultures? I was not at all surprised to read about the internal appointment of  Steve Rowe to succeed Marc Bolland as the CEO of M&S. His twenty-five years in the business – and having worked in pretty much all parts of the company – mean there are very few people out there who know the M&S customer as well as he does and he will definitely be putting customers first.

Steve started with the company on the shop floor as a teenager, and, aside from a very brief spell at Topshop, has spent decades working his way both horizontally and vertically through the company. After rising to store manager, he joined the head office in 1992 as a merchandiser in menswear, and a few years later became a category manager in the furniture department. In 2003, he moved up to head up all home categories, and was promoted to director of the division a year later.

As part of the senior leadership at M&S, Steve led retail across the business as well as, between 2009 and 2011, its ecommerce operations. During that time he achieved consistent growth, increasing the online business by 20% in 2011, and it continued to grow ahead of the national average in subsequent years. For the modern shop-floor-to-CEO retailer, I believe this experience in the company’s ecommerce operations was a critical step in Steve’s career to enable him to be a future CEO.


In 2012, as part of a reshuffle when former head of food moved to the clothing department, CEO Marc Bolland gave Steve his big break, appointing him as executive director of the £4.7bn food division. In an indisputably tough and highly-competitive grocery market, Steve grew the division on a like-for-like basis for 12 quarters consecutively, continuing a trend set by his predecessor John Dixon, who left M&S to become CEO at Australian department store David Jones last summer.

In an era when it is increasingly uncommon to remain with one company, Steve Rowe has managed to scale his way to the top due to having worked in so many different parts of the company. More importantly, M&S is betting that his intimate knowledge of the business and its customers will enable him to get up to speed as a first-time CEO quickly.

Whenever we work with clients to find a new CEO, whether a listed corporate business or any other, we’re always most interested in the candidates who can demonstrate breadth, who have been able to adapt and develop in different situations as we believe it will stand them in good stead in the future.

That will certainly need to be the case for Steve as he faces the ongoing challenge of making M&S’s general merchandise business relevant again to customers. We wish Steve the best in his new role and in facing his upcoming challenges.

How have you stayed in touch with your customers? Let me know at and have a great weekend.