Comment: Royal Mail sales battle | M&S puzzle

SO MANY have tried and failed to privatise Royal Mail that even now, with a promise of a flotation in the autumn, the process has to be treated with some caution.
Terry Murden. Picture: TSPLTerry Murden. Picture: TSPL
Terry Murden. Picture: TSPL

Chief executive Moya Greene has done her bit, modernising its outdated sorting offices, getting its costs and income into better balance, resolving its huge pension fund deficit – with the help of some sleight-of-hand Treasury accounting tactics – and 
finally making a healthy profit.

Both the UK government and Royal Mail management have accepted that, in the modern era, faced with electronic means of communication and European competition rulings, the status quo is no longer tenable. Royal Mail requires access to external capital and that could not be achieved by raiding the public purse.

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Privatisation, therefore, becomes the only option, though there will be those who believe the state should retain some form of golden share to prevent yet another former public utility being sold into foreign ownership.

There has been no indication that the UK government will take this 
option, but it does look likely to offer 10 per cent of the eventual share issue to the employees.

Business Secretary Vince Cable has been at pains to stress that this is not a bribe, even though the Communication Workers Union is unhappy at the whole process and is threatening strike action.

Trade union problems have dogged the postal service for years and it has contributed to previous failures to shift Royal Mail into private hands. But Michael Fallon was installed as a minister at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills with a remit to make it happen.

He issued a diplomatic statement yesterday referring to the united 
efforts of management, staff and the UK government in putting Royal Mail on a sustainable footing, but he will know that there are a few battles yet be fought.

At least as deputy chair of the Treasury select committee, he will have picked up a few lessons on how to confront those with a different agenda to his own.

High fashion or back to basics for M&S?

EVERYTHING has been tried by Marc Bolland to turn around the good ship Marks & Spencer, including expensive and extensive store refurbishments, new deli counters and numerous ranges and branding exercises for the general merchandise, including the all-important clothing business.

The launch last week of the 
autumn-winter womenswear collection on which so much of the company’s future hangs may have been timed to provide some positive mood music around M&S ahead of yesterday’s fall in profits. But nothing can disguise the size of the challenge ahead. Make no mistake, M&S is not in trouble, far from it. But the upside is limited, with some analysts believing that it would be foolhardy to pin too much hope on new fashions to bring an immediate improvement to the bottom line.

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It could take three seasons to bring the younger customers into the stores, by which time Bolland’s future may have been determined.

One view is that Bolland has been too keen to adopt a James Bond image in publicity shots with a girl on each arm and that by hiring models such as Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, with supermodel looks, he has alienated ordinary M&S shoppers who feel unable to keep up.

A more back-to-basics approach may prove the best route to growth.