By Neil Craven
Financial Mail on Sunday, London.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) This article takes a look at the major fashion retailers in Britain and why there is a lack of women in leadership. The story is told through the eyes of Kate Bostock, a major player in retail who is now opening up her own kids fashion brand Angel & Rocket.
IT’S high time a woman ran Marks & Spencer. So declares Kate Bostock, the group’s one-time fashion boss and herself once thought to be a candidate for the top job at Britain’s best-known stores group.
‘I thought it might have happened this time round,’ she says regretfully. It didn’t of course. When current chief Marc Bolland steps down next month he will be replaced by another man — Steve Rowe.
Bostock drives on. ‘It’s a very female-dominated business in terms of its customer base and, at the end of the day, that’s what the business is all about — the customers that you’re selling to. Hopefully, it will happen soon.’
At M&S, 15 of its 21 operational directors are men. But Bostock says: ‘It’s a fact that boards with women on them are better companies and more successful.’
Of course, M&S is not alone. As Bostock points out, women do the vast majority of shopping in many households, often even buying their male partner’s clothes and yet none of the retailers in the FTSE-100 — as well as the major fashion names, Next, Debenhams, House of Fraser and New Look — is run by women.
And according to a report by executive search firm Korn Ferry, only 15 per cent of the 45 newly appointed retail chief executives last year were women, even less than the previous year.
‘It’s disappointing. In those big corporate firms the men still dominate even though there are a lot of women in the business. Whereas in the smaller and medium-sized firms women often dominate,’ she says. Bostock herself is now a consultant at fashion chain Coast and is building her own kids fashion brand Angel & Rocket with her own money.
It is not that women are unrepresented overall in retailing: one step down from the boardroom there are plenty of women.
‘Getting girls from manager level, to senior manager to director level — taking that step — is still a challenge.
‘We’re not quite there yet are we?’ she states as a fact, rather than a question. ‘You’ve got to have that ambition. You’ve got to really want to do it and you’ve got to set yourself up with support so you’re not at work worrying about your children or catching the train,’ she says.
‘But the biggest issue is that too many women are unsure whether they can actually make that step and whether they will be supported.’
Bostock was a director of a fashion supplier in her mid-20s and held senior roles at Next and George at Asda before joining M&S in 2004. By 2007 she was in the boardroom as a director — one of six women out of 28 executives.
But while Bostock clearly feels it is time for a change in retailing, she is not bitter. ‘I’m really happy with everything I’ve done and where I’ve got to,’ says Bostock, who lives in Buckinghamshire and has many of the trappings of success, including those typically usually associated with a rather more blokey style. She admits to recently buying a matt charcoal grey Porsche Targa with the licence plate BO55 TOK, under advice from her two sons. At the same time there are hints of some regrets over what being ambitious as a woman used to mean, in the less enlightened past.
‘I am conscious that I’ve worked really hard and I compromised a lot of things to get there. Actually, I think it probably should be a little bit easier than it was for me,’ says Bostock. ‘I compromised the time I spent with my family. I wasn’t there at the school gate and I didn’t always make the Christmas Carol concert. Sometimes that can be hard — you question yourself,’ she says.
The speed at which she returned to work after her maternity leave, for example. ‘I had a very short maternity break. I was off for a month when I had my eldest boy and I was off for just a week when I had my second. Two weeks later I made a trip to the Far East. For years I was proud of it, but it’s a bit embarrassing now really,’ she says.
‘I was very fortunate. I had a lot of help — great nannies and a lot of support from my family. But it was hard going in the 1980s for professional girls because employers couldn’t keep your job open or find people to do it on a temporary basis. Things are 100 per cent different now,’ she suggests.And she even has good words for one corporate group, Next, which she says pioneered employment terms that allowed women to take a maternity break more easily and then pick up their career where they left off.
Her sons Lewis and Joel are now 32 and 25 respectively and were therefore grown up when she arrived in the M&S boardroom.
So that top job at M&S — could it ever have been hers? ‘If I’d have pushed I could probably have made it happen,’ she says. ‘But I had eight great years there and I was ready to do something different.’
Due to celebrate her 60th birthday in September, Bostock, who cites Mary Quant, Betty Jackson and Vivienne Westwood as her role models, is enjoying being at the ground floor of her own new company.
‘It’s an achievement to start up your own business. And it’s a bit of a white-knuckle ride when you are investing your second or third lump of money,’ she says of Angel & Rocket, which was set up two years ago. In June last year she stepped down as chief executive at Coast to focus on her new firm, though she continues to advise there.
Angel & Rocket is, she hopes, about to take off. The brand is sold in 25 concessions in the Middle East, is being trialled online at Amazon and House of Fraser and will be on sale in John Lewis stores from the autumn.
This week Bostock is helping to launch a campaign to encourage female talent in retailing.
The campaign ‘Be Inspired’ launches on Thursday at Retail Week Live, the industry’s biggest annual conference and, as well as Bostock, is supported by Angela Spindler, chief executive of N Brown; Dixons Carphone UK and Ireland chief executive Katie Bickerstaffe; Debenhams group trading director and board member Suzanne Harlow; and Ann Summers chief executive Jacqueline Gold.
‘We want to see things change and do whatever we can to influence girls to push the boundaries and to go for these big jobs,’ says Bostock, who has discussed a number of non-executive roles. So when might a woman be running one of the bigger firms?
‘I don’t know the answer to that, but I will do everything I can to make sure that happens soon,’ she says.
And could it be her? ‘You never say “It’s too late”. But that should have happened ten years ago. Now I don’t have the ambition to do that — I’m more interested in running my own business.’