Profile: M&S finance chief Alison Reed

In the three months to March, sales slumped by 3.4%. Food takings were down by 1.4% and clothes sales by 2.5%. High street shoppers, it seems, have found somewhere else to buy their knickers and sandwiches.

The fallout was instantaneous. Shares duly slumped and fingers were immediately pointed at managers for taking their eyes off the ball.

Bosses countered that another revamp of its image and the imminent shedding of 1,000 jobs would help turn the high street stalwart around.

Alison Reed, in her 20th year at Marks, confidently stated that the company would still make its profit targets for the year.

To paraphrase a quote, she would say that wouldn’t she, and undoubtedly the pressure is on to prove that the company is not in terminal decline as some of the City’s more negative doomsayers have forecast.

Reed’s role will be crucial in disproving this. Then again, as the highest paid female finance director in the country (she earned £695,000 last year) and identified as one of the 50 most powerful women in the UK, Reed should be up to the task.

Being a high-profile figure – her presence as one of still just a handful of female finance directors shames the City – and responsible for one of the best name brands in the country all seems a far cry from her upbringing.

Reed, 46, grew up in the small Hampshire village of Bramley, one of the ancient settlements mentioned in the Domesday Book.

After school, she went to Exeter University where she studied geography and economic history, graduating in 1978.

She qualified as a chartered accountant with Touche Ross where she stayed before moving to M&S in 1984. Reed took up a number of roles within the finance division, but it was in 1990 that her rise to the M&S top table was truly realised when she was promoted to the position of Executive Assistant to the Chairman.

Two years after that she was on the move again, appointed to the clumsily titled position of Commercial Executive for Home Furnishings and Gifts.

During her four-year stint there, that side of the M&S business grew substantially and certainly enough for Reed to get noticed by her peers.

By 1996 she had returned to the financial side of the operation and was appointed Group Financial Director. In 1999, she became the UK retail finance director.

In July 2001 she became CFO overseeing the company’s books during what has been a turbulent time.

Outside of Marks, Reed, a divorcee with no children, has been a non-executive director of HSBC Bank since 1996 and is also a member of the fundraising board for the Whizz-Kidz charity, which aims to help the lives of disabled children with mobility problems. She was also a trustee of BBC Children in Need.

When there is time to relax – which may not be too often over the next few months – travel and theatre are Reed’s choices.

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