Mark Kleinman on marketing and the City: A different sort of ROI

Retailers rely on a sound understanding of consumers - an understanding worth its weight in gold.

The high street is haunted by the ghosts of retailers who thought they knew their customers, but didn't.

It is just over 15 months since the demise of Woolworths, the remains of which have been picked over by discount retailers.

Some of these emerging players are thriving - and often without much conventional investment in marketing, beyond a commitment to the basic principles of sound retailing.

Take Poundland, for example. So successful has it been since it was acquired by the private-equity group Advent International in 2002 that it is now plotting a stock-market listing that will trigger bumper payouts for its shareholders and management.

More intriguing, however, is the continued existence - and in some cases, revival - of chains, including some of the UK's best-known retailers, that five years ago looked to be heading the same way as Woolworths.

In 2004, when Sir Philip Green was launching his second attempt to buy Marks & Spencer, serious questions were being asked about the future of Boots, Mothercare and WH Smith.

The popular view was that none stood a prayer of surviving the decade as independent companies. All three had lost market-leading positions, as well as their self-confidence in the face of aggressive supermarket competition.

Since then, Boots has changed ownership twice, but under Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, its private-equity backer, it is now on the front foot again (a vast debt notwithstanding). Its recently announced partnership with Waitrose, for example, should produce benefits for both parties.

Let's not forget, though, that Boots has been here before, when it trialled a joint venture with Sainsbury's in 2001. It was not a success, and the potential for a full merger slipped away largely because of 'social issues' - the two management teams couldn't work out who would run the combined group.

At Mothercare, where chief executive Ben Gordon has been in place since 2002, and WH Smith, where group chief executive Kate Swann has run the show since 2003, there has been no takeover activity.

This is relevant because, once again, the issue of executive compensation is dominating Britain's boardrooms.

Given Marks & Spencer's chequered corporate governance history, it's no surprise that Sir Stuart Rose is first in the firing line. Shareholders are furious that he will be the best-paid non-executive chairman of a FTSE-100 company until he leaves next March.

Institutional investors have short memories, of course. They forget that, had he not taken the reins six years ago, M&S would almost certainly have surrendered its independence.

Even so, they have a point on this latest issue. Rose has been at the centre of too many governance disputes and should have viewed this as an opportunity to make a compromise gesture - particularly if he wants a big public company chairmanship in future.

Meanwhile, Swann is on a generous (relative to the size of her company) long-term incentive plan to keep her focused on continued delivery. Even so, there must be a growing possibility that both she and Gordon will be tempted to jump ship in the next year or so.

Shareholders should hang onto them at almost any cost, even if it means splashing out to do so. Like any good retailer, they need to understand what really constitutes value for money - because, to paraphrase a former brand campaign from MasterCard, keeping a chief executive might cost millions of pounds, but having one who really understands what makes customers tick is priceless.

Mark Kleinman is City editor at Sky News and a columnist for The Times.

30 SECONDS ON ... Poundland

- Poundland was established in April 1990, with funds from the sale of an international wholesaling business.

- Its variety stores offer more than 3000 items at £1 each, many of them name brands, across 16 categories including homeand kitchenware, stationery, food and drink, health and beauty and entertainment.

- The chain has more than 260 stores across the UK, of which 61 opened in 2008/9. This month, it unveiled plans to open at least 50 stores in 2010/11, creating more than 2000 jobs. The stores' average sales area will be more than 6000ft2, but some bigger store formats are also planned. It expects to invest about £10m in new stores.

- Poundland's stores employ more than 7000 people who serve more than 2.5m customers every week.

- The company reported steady growth last year. In Christmas trading, its like-for-like sales rose 4.4% in the five weeks to 3 January 2010. Its total sales for the period, including new stores, were up 34.8% year on year.

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