Marks & Spencer (M&S) is scrambling to find a new finance chief less than a week before Humphrey Singer, the incumbent for less than 18 months, leaves the embattled high street chain.
Sky News has learnt that M&S is preparing to install an interim chief finance officer in the coming days after concluding that an initial shortlist of permanent replacements had failed to produce an acceptable candidate.
City sources said this weekend that M&S’s board, led by the retail veteran Archie Norman, has yet to decide whether to bring in an outsider to take the role on a temporary basis.
That decision would depend upon the progress of the search for a long-term successor to Mr Singer, they said.
An announcement is expected on or before M&S updates the stock market on 9 January.
Among those considered for the permanent role in recent months was Adrian Marsh, the well-regarded finance chief of paper and packaging group DS Smith, according to one headhunter.
The hunt for a stop-gap solution comes with less than a fortnight before M&S announces a Christmas trading update that is expected to reflect the prevailing gloom on Britain’s high streets.
Boxing Day footfall across the retail sector collapsed to its lowest level in a decade as poor weather and the shift towards online retailing hampered physical trading levels.
M&S announced more than three months ago that Mr Singer was stepping down less than a year-and-a-half after he joined from Dixons Carphone.
People close to the clothing and food retailer said that he had never settled in the role and that Mr Norman had been dissatisfied with his approach to a £600m rights issue that helped to finance the purchase of a 50% stake in Ocado’s UK retail operations.
The fresh management upheaval comes soon after M&S was demoted from the FTSE-100 for the first time since the blue-chip share index was created during the 1980s.
Mr Singer joined in July 2018, and was a key part of the management team assembled by chief executive Steve Rowe.
The announcement of his departure came just two months after M&S ousted clothing chief Jill McDonald, who has since resurfaced as the boss of Costa Coffee.
Since then, Richard Price has been hired from Tesco to replace Ms McDonald.
Announcing his departure, Mr Singer described M&S as “a brilliant business and a much-loved brand for our colleagues and our customers”.
“The transformation taking place is of a scale, depth and pace not seen before at the company,” he added in September.
Mr Singer’s tenure was brief by the standards of finance chiefs at major listed companies, and particularly so since his arrival was hailed by Mr Rowe because of his experience at another chain undergoing a rapid transition to multichannel retailing.
The M&S chief will come under further pressure during 2020 to demonstrate that its transformation plan is working.
Many analysts and shareholders believe Mr Rowe will be replaced next year without significant improvements to the company’s supply chain and availability – both of which have plagued M&S in the past.
November’s half-year results announcement saw profits fall in its clothing business but hold up well at its food division.
The retailer’s relegation from the FTSE 100 – 35 years after the index was established – marked a significant symbol of its declining fortunes.
M&S now has a market value of £4.25bn, having seen its shares slip by 6% during the last year.
The high street bellwether has been pursuing a restructuring programme for several years as it tries to keep pace with a fast-changing retail climate.
Scores of stores have already been closed, while Mr Rowe told investors at M&S’s annual general meeting earlier this year that the current proposal to close 110 shops was “not finite”.
In total, the company has incurred restructuring charges of more than £1.5bn during the last four years, a grim figure which has decimated profits and contributed to a cut to its dividend.
However, M&S has also promised to deliver cost savings of at least £350m within two years.
Its struggles have echoed those of the wider high street, with rivals including Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group and Debenhams forced to turn to varying forms of insolvency mechanism in a bid to survive.
In addition to the appointment of retail veteran Mr Norman as chairman two years ago, M&S’s board has been strengthened by the arrival of Justin King – the architect of a successful turnaround of J Sainsbury – as a non-executive director.
M&S said this weekend that its search for a new finance chief was “progressing well” and that it would update the market “in due course”.