Sir Richard Greenbury, the former Marks & Spencer chairman who died last week aged 81, was one of those choleric but thin-skinned corporate chiefs (Sir Alastair Morton of Eurotunnel was another) who never learned to handle journalists. The Telegraph reporter Kate Rankine famously caused him to blow his top at a 1997 press conference by asking when he intended to retire; he made matters worse by describing her later as ‘a silly little girl’. Editors who criticised the retail chain’s performance and his own perceived failure to reinvigorate it received blazing letters known as ‘Rickograms’, of which one to the female editor of Investors Chronicle began: ‘Dear Sir, What a load of old tosh…’
A suitably blunt answer to the retirement question finally came in 1999, when Greenbury was forced out after an undignified boardroom tussle and a farewell salvo from his City-page antagonists. Undoubtedly he clung to power too long and let his ego get in the way — but still we can salute his career-long loyalty to M&S and its founders’ precepts of high staff welfare, long-term supplier relationships, and attention to quality that created both a trusted brand and a share worth owning. As I’ve said before, that benign model is worth recalling whenever capitalism’s critics are on the rampage.
As for Sir Rick, his epistolary style mellowed in old age. His last letter to me, in May, was on the subject of executive pay, on which he took another media kicking when he chaired a CBI enquiry in 1995 and which he strongly believed should be restrained by institutional shareholders rather than government intervention. It ended ‘Warmest good wishes, no reply needed’, to which I replied ‘Do keep writing’. I’m sorry I won’t be hearing from him again.