In conversation with Stuart Machin, CEO at M&S

Stuart Machin is a CEO in the detail. He has a reputation of being hands on, full of energy and close to the action, whether that be across the food business, in fashion or walking the stores with colleagues. He’s someone who will get on the phone immediately asking the team to follow up on a product issue or a customer complaint, and he’s known for taking pictures and emailing them to the  leadership team.  

Although Stuart is relentlessly focused on product and stores, Stuart has conversations in the boardroom as well as on the shop floor, frequently asking colleagues questions and wanting to know what exactly the issues are. He is known for scrolling through the M&S app as well as the M&S website, sending thoughts and ideas about product descriptions or the photography. Or maybe there’s a product that is out of stock and he wants to know why.  

It is this sort of in-the-weeds thinking that defines Stuart’s leadership. And in two years as CEO at M&S, Stuart has embedded his own mantra into M&S behaviours: “always aiming higher.” Today, M&S’s success is hard to miss: under Stuart and his leadership team, the 140-year-old retailer has begun to revitalise its product and proposition, refresh its stores and has now climbed back into the FTSE 100.

I’ve known Stuart for the best part of a decade, having the privilege of working closely with him, first when he was Managing Director of the food business when he joined M&S in 2018, and now as CEO as he continues to build his executive team. 

So one evening this week I sat down with Stuart in our office in Primrose Hill to discuss the path that led him to becoming CEO, his team, the biggest learnings from his career and why ‘positive dissatisfaction’ lies at the very heart of his leadership style.

Stuart was born in Kent, growing up watching his mother juggle a senior career in real estate with life at home. “I was always struck by my mother’s confidence, her work ethic and her integrity,” he reflected. “She certainly had a strong influence on me, she had ambition to do a good job but at the same time she sometimes showed her vulnerability at home.”

Inheriting this work ethic from his mother, Stuart landed his first job in retail at the age of 16, pushing trolleys at his local SavaCentre Hypermarket (a chain of 13 hypermarkets owned by both Sainsbury’s and British Home stores). His first job was based at Hempstead Valley store, a 150,000 square-foot hypermarket, which he tells me he returned to at 27-years-old as Store Director. Stuart laughs remembering his first interview at the store with Personnel Manager Colin Jones. “I turned up in a suit and tie for the interview and Colin (Mr Jones then) told me that no one had ever turned up to push trolleys dressed so smartly!”

Stuart spent two years stacking shelves, counting cash in the cash office, working on the checkouts and doing all sorts of jobs in the evenings and at weekends at the store. He reels off names of colleagues and managers that helped him in the first two years, remembering that these people had a big impact on him and on where he is today. He tells me how much he loved that job and “for the first time as a kid, as a teenager, I felt I had a real purpose.”

Abandoning plans to go to university to become a teacher (he wanted to teach Theology), Stuart joined the Sainsbury’s/BHS graduate management programme at 18 years old. “I got the job and told my mother I was leaving for Birmingham the next day, as that was where my first post was,” he said. Every two or three years, Stuart moved role, spending time in store operations as well as buying, marketing and supply chain. “The beauty of SavaCentre”, he told me, “was that I got involved and trained in clothing and general merchandise as well as food”.

After Sainsbury’s, Stuart was headhunted by David Potts to join Tesco and two years later by Andy Bond and Andy Clarke to join Asda. He ran operations at Asda and describes it as a brilliant organisation, with a very different culture. 

When I asked Stuart about his career, he talks about how everyone has “highs and lows”. “It’s important to remember sometimes things do go wrong. Some of the jobs I had, I didn’t quite enjoy as much as others and from other roles, I have taken key learnings where there have been bumps in the road.”

Stuart moved to Australia in 2008 to join Wesfarmers to work at Coles as part of their major turnaround. As Chief Operating Officer,  he was known as being incredibly hard-working and particularly focused on colleagues and stores. As part of his responsibilities, he ran IT, HR, online and store operations across the whole of Australia. Coles was a major success and Stuart was promoted from there into the fashion business, Target, where he introduced ranges by Dannii Minogue, Jean Paul Gaultier and Missoni. 

Stuart loves fashion as much as he loves food. He recently took his clothing leadership team to Madrid and Barcelona, to look at what Spanish companies were up to in apparel. “You can learn from everyone,” he told me. “I don’t believe in criticising the competition, I believe in learning from them, looking what everyone is doing and looking for the good. There are some fantastic fashion retailers in Spain, and we had a good few days looking at their product and visiting their stores but also their supply chain.” 

“Every day I continue to learn, continue to take on the feedback, and personally continue to always try to do better.” 

I ask Stuart about his learnings and about how he developed as a leader. He’s clear that he doesn’t think he’s finished learning. The first two years of being chief executive at Marks & Spencer have been a learning every day. He says in his first year he was learning how to deal with external stakeholders, how to work with the Board, and told me that “every day I continue to learn, continue to take on the feedback, and personally continue to always try to do better. In fact, I think I’ve learnt to be more resilient and less sensitive to feedback,” he says. “You have to be company first, then colleagues, and I always say to individuals, you are important but not more important than anyone else.”

Stuart reflects on his learnings prior to Marks & Spencer. “If I look back, I don’t think I’d be able to be the CEO I am today if I hadn’t gone through some of the ups and downs in prior years. In the last two years, I’ve got so much closer to controls and governance, the balance sheet, the P&L and cash flow and  I thoroughly enjoy the numbers athough I don’t over-worry about the numbers but worry more about how we’re serving customers and how we’re implementing our change programmes. I don’t spend a lot of time looking at the share price. I get a Friday evening summary and that’s it. I believe if we deliver our plans then the share price will look after itself.” 

“I don’t spend a lot of time looking at the share price. I get a Friday evening summary and that’s it. I believe if we deliver our plans then the share price will look after itself.” 

Fast forward to today, and Stuart comes across as incredibly confident, and incredibly focused. He is known internally as someone who has a big heart, but who can be tough. He spends the majority of his time in the office during the week and spends his weekends in stores. Stuart likes going to the M&S distribution centres, spends a lot of time looking for and meeting talent and is ruthlessly focused on the implementation of the plan that’s in place. He talks a lot about product and as part of M&S’s new purpose and vision he says trust and exceptional product are at the very heart of their strategy. He probably knows every single food line that M&S sells, has eaten everything (and even developed a few lines himself) and tells me that he’s the number one menswear shopper, according to Sparks. 

Stuart certainly prefers looking to future opportunities than reflecting on past successes. Despite M&S’s return to strong profitability and its improvement in clothing and food, Stuart is clear that this is just the very start. He believes that M&S is a third of the way through its transformation and in some ways is just at the foothills of its future. Stuart includes rethinking the company’s global opportunities as a key part of M&S’ future – but is quick to add that that that doesn’t mean spending lots! “Looking at data, digital and IT, I know that there’s still so much opportunity in the core businesses of Clothing & Home and Food,” he told me.  

When Stuart started at M&S six years ago, he revolutionised the food business and he is now spending more time with the clothing team.  “I think the work we are doing in clothing is fantastic. I love reviewing the ranges, talking to the team and trying to think about how we can reposition our clothing business now and for the future.” 

He talks a lot about his people and his leadership team, appreciating the fact that they work hard. And he likes them to bring him any problems before the good news. He wants a culture where bad news travels faster than good, and where the opportunities are looked at. But he’s conscious of feedback: “I know I need to praise a little bit more.”  

Stuart is also known for being blunt, and when asked for his opinion, he does not hold back. This is best seen in his quotes about the government turning down the planning permission for the refurbishment of the  Marble Arch store, but he says that “everything I do, I do for Marks & Spencer, and not for me personally.” He’s known for pushing Number 10 and making his points about business rates or about the apprenticeship levy. He’s not shy at giving his view. 

As we finish the meeting, I hear about the recent trips he’s taken to factories in Sri Lanka, about his listening groups with colleagues in stores, and about the workshops he’s held with support centre colleagues.  He tells me with a twinkle in his eye:  ‘I know that the biscuits we’ve been eating are M&S, but that the tea “is definitely not M&S Gold Label!”    

It’s late in the evening, and as the sun is setting over London,  I was struck by the indefinable qualities he has, that make Stuart Machin not only a CEO for today but a brilliant CEO for tomorrow.

Quick fire questions:

What do you do to unwind? I listen to music. I go to concerts, go to the theatre and sometimes just watch TV. I also love going for walks with my dog. 

How do you want to develop your career? I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me as the CEO of M&S – I think! That will depend on our shareholders and Board of course. I probably want to find a non-executive Board role at some point, just to build on my learnings and to help my development.

Who are your mentors? My parents, friends, and of course some brilliant people I work with. People inside Marks & Spencer now, but also colleagues that  I’ve worked with in the past, who I keep in touch with. I do acknowledge that we have a very strong Board, and I can pick the phone up to any of them and get their advice at any time. 

What would you like your legacy to be? I’m really not sure as I don’t think I have an outward facing legacy, but I would like to feel I’ve achieved something. I think that’s all I want. I think deep down everyone wants to feel like they’ve made a difference and done something worthwhile. Leading M&S is definitely something worthwhile. | @TheMBSGroup