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Retail duo face up to their Waterloo

When a brace of retail grandees stepped forward to save the High Street, how did we end up with such champions as Bill Grimsey and Mary Portas?

Both have separately published reports aimed at reviving the country’s destitute town centres.
Both have been derided by the other, but neither have the kind of track records that warrant august positions as saviours of our High Street.

Britain is supposed to be a nation of shopkeepers, at least according to Napoleon. It is a mystery why we have not managed to enlist a more obvious stable of unsung heroes – entrepreneurs and chief executives who have either created or grown chains and would be able to contribute an abundance of valuable insights.
Think Paul Smith, the designer who has quietly expanded around the world, or the Weston family behind the phenomenally successful Primark brand.

These are more sober choices, but experts in their field.
Grimsey, who doesn’t exactly have an unblemished career behind the till, slammed the self-anointed Queen of Shops earlier this week saying her Portas Review, which contained 28 recommendations including bingo nights, ‘promised the Earth but delivered little’.
Grimsey’s much-trailed report, written with eight colleagues, contained 31 recommendations.

While giving evidence to MPs on the communities and local government committee Portas hit back saying: ‘I must have done something to Bill Grimsey in a former life,’ and that she hadn’t included him in her report. She added as an aside that he would probably have been busy liquidating some of his companies. Acerbic stuff. But on this occasion Portas isn’t totally wrong. Grimsey has a mixed record. He established himself as a turnaround specialist and had some early success. But he has also had some disappointments.

He joined Iceland (the frozen food firm, not the country) and according to the firm’s website ‘claimed to have identified massive problems’ sparking £145m in one-off items.
Grimsey has argued that he inherited a broken business and without him it would have been taken apart and sold.

However, his recovery plan stuttered, sales fell and four years later the business was sold to a consortium headed by the Icelandic retail group Baugur at a fraction of its stock market peak value.
Grimsey believes the business had been stabilised and its value was worth more than if he had not fixed fundamental problems.
He then took control of Focus DIY – ‘my one defeat’ – which was forced to seek a ‘company voluntary arrangement’.

Portas has less hands-on experience, creating shop window displays, setting up her own retail agency and fronting TV shows as a ‘retail guru’. Her Portas Review had a mixed reception, with one pundit comparing it to a GCSE student having written a report on the High Street.

MPs on Monday questioned whether her motivation was self-publicity and the knock-on financial benefit for her television show, something she denied. Portas insisted, ad nauseam, that she had undertaken the work in her own time for no cost and taken a ‘huge bashing’.

The MPs asked Portas if she felt she had been set up to fail. She said she hoped not. But Prime Minister David Cameron is no fool. He too has a background in public relations before moving on to greater things.
We probably ended up with Portas and Grimsey fronting the reports because big names have popular appeal.
They are also the high-profile fall guys should things go wrong.
Maybe Portas was outplayed at her own game.

Source: This is Money

07 September 2013
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