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Sir Richard Greenbury (born 1936) was chairman and chief executive of the British retailer Marks and Spencer from 1988 to 1999. During his tenure the company continued to grow strongly until it reached its peak in 1997 and 1998 when it was the second most profitable retailer in the world after Wal-Mart, and the ninth largest company in Britain. After resigning from his post, Peter Salsbury took over his position in the company.

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Early life

Greenbury was born Carlisle and educated at Ealing County Grammar School in London. The young Richard Greenbury claimed to be “The most caned boy in school,” an achievement he admitted that taught him “The importance of discipline.” Despite an academic enthusiasm, at over six foot, Greenbury played football for his school's 1st XI and later at county level while competing at tennis as well. However, after his mother contracted cancer, Greenbury felt obliged to leave school with only six O-levels; opting to start earning at the age of sixteen and missing out a university education. Before his seventeenth birthday, Greenbury took a modest job at Lilywhite’s.

Marks and Spencer

Greenbury's stay at Lilywhite’s was short lived. He later accepted a management trainee position at Marks and Spencer, who fortunately did not require A-levels. His hard work was recognized by Simon, Lord Marks. Taken under the wing of the founding father’s son, the chairman dubbed Greenbury “Big Fellah”, and soon moved him to head office as a trainee merchandiser and personal assistant to his son in law.

It was in men’s knitwear where Greenbury made his name in the early 1960s. As noted by Simon Marks, ‘Rick’ as he soon became known, was a retailer through and through. Spotting the trend towards casual menswear Greenbury formed a strong friendship with Harry Djanogoly, who ran the knitwear company Nottingham Manufacturing, and transformed the then unknown aisle in every Marks and Spencer store into a profits power house for the company, which reputedly got Djanogoly his KBE and Greenbury his promotion.

However, after his recent marriage to first wife Siân Hughes in 1959, thoughts of running the company were somewhat out of reach. However, in 1972 Greenbury was made the youngest director in the company’s history, only twenty years after being welcomed by the business. At the age of forty-one, Sir Richard was made a managing director. By 1978 he had worked in every area of the business including food, property and, of course, clothing. In 1984, shortly after becoming chairman, Derek Rayner decided it was time to outline his immediate successor, and in 1988, Greenbury took his place as chief executive. In 1991, he was promoted again, becoming chairman, in keeping with Marks and Spencer's business traditions.

Despite later criticism, when the company smashed the £1 billion profit barrier in 1997 the City sang the praises of Sir Richard; and only in hindsight did journalists criticise his tenure. For every year that Greenbury was in charge, Marks and Spencer held more than twice the clothing market of any other high street name, and even after the 'crash', and Greenbury had left, they were still the only retailer holding over 10% of the market.

New leadership

In 1999, his career as a CEO came to an end. Greenbury bore criticism as he stood down. One journalist would later impart; "Life has been unfair to Sir Richard, he had forty years of unmitigated success followed by one poor one; and that's the one he'll be remembered for." Despite this, Greenbury talked about the problems with the leadership succession that ultimately caused a slump at the retailer and as the four possible candidates for the job engaged in a bitter power struggled that stimulated headlines such as; "Sparks Fly at Marks." The downturn in Marks and Spencer's fortune was also attributed to the Littlewoods acquisition that reportedly cost hundreds of millions and was taken from yearly profits. After stepping down Greenbury went on to serve as a director with ICI, Zeneca, C&G, Game, British Gas, Lloyds TSB and currently on the supervisory board at Philips. Though his tenure will be remembered for the downturn in profits and share prices that followed his departure we must remember that it was under Greenbury when Marks and Spencer undertook the greatest international expansion, had the greatest number of employees, stores and floor space, and the highest share prices, share of the market and pre and post-tax profits of any retailer in Europe and, excluding stores owning multiple chains, the world.

Statistics on Richard Greenbury's tenure as Chief Executive (1988-1998 completed financial years)

  • Number of UK stores: 1985 (before appointment) - 283; 1998 - 300
  • Sales: 1985 - £3,213,000,000; 1998 - £8,343,300,000
  • Pre-tax profits: 1985 - £303,400,000, 1998 - £1,168,000,000

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