A new lease of life

Anyone who thought former M&S FD Alison Reed was all washed up when her departure was announced in November last year will be chewing on their words.

The end of her term at Britain’s favourite purveyor of cotton underwear may have been widely interpreted as the FD paying the price for poor performance of the company. But Reed has proved her career was not all pants. She’s got another job – and it’s a big one.

Reed is becoming FD of Standard Life. While the gulf between the two may seem huge – a top department store selling clothes and food, versus a top mutual life assurer – Reed is likely to suffer no fall in prestige.

For while M&S is clearly one of the UK’s top companies, nestling as it does among the FTSE100, Standard Life, when it lists after jumping through all the right regulatory hoops, is also expected to be placed among the top flight.

Indeed, Standard Life insiders will tell you privately they expect to be working for one of the top 50 biggest companies in the land.

That’s if it happens. Reed is bound to notice that the move to Standard Life will not take her away from controversy. While M&S struggled with falling performance and boardroom staffing, Standard Life is caught up in public rows over the switch from mutual to public company.

Reed will be working for at least a year under the microscope of press and public scrutiny as Standard Life manages the transition. At the same time as getting to grips with the job, she’ll be battling intense attention from the press.

But it’s the transition that has driven Standard Life’s decision to take on Reed. She offers invaluable public company experience – and at the sharp end where it hurts. She’s tough and that’s what the mutual needs.

Statements made by Reed shortly after M&S’s darkest days of the late 1990s demonstrate she is not one to dwell on the past.

Sir Richard Greenbury, former chairman and CEO at M&S, paid tribute to Reed in a Financial Times article saying: ‘She had very strong opinions about what was right and what was wrong. She was quite stubborn in her views and I liked that.’

Judy Bevan, in her book The Rise and Fall of Marks & Spencer, describes Reed as ‘bravely’ pointing out that M&S in Europe had been a disaster.

Honesty and integrity like that will be qualities that members of the mutual, and future shareholders, will welcome with open arms.

Reed will be involved in some big projects for Standard Life. A switch to international accounting standards, absorption of new corporate governance rules, a different financial reporting regime – all these will have to be carefully handled and successfully implemented.

Reed clearly wasn’t looking for an easy life when she set about finding a new job.

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