One of Marks & Spencer’s most senior female directors will not be returning to the retailer from maternity leave.
Laura Wade-Gery was put in charge of M&S’s store and online operations in 2014, a role that many saw as a stepping stone to taking over from former chief executive Marc Bolland.
However Ms Wade-Gery, who has been with the chain since 2011, lost out in the race to replace Mr Bolland to company veteran Steve Rowe, who was announced as his replacement in January of this year.
M&S said Ms Wade-Gery would be leaving the company at the end of September and stepping down from its board with immediate effect.
The high street retailer announced in August last year that Ms Wade-Gery, 50, would be taking four months of maternity leave.
But last Christmas, the retailer quietly announced that she would be extending that leave until this month.
A month before she went on maternity leave, one of her rivals for the top job, clothing boss John Dixon, abruptly quit.
Then in January, Mr Bolland announced his departure after failing to stop the retailers’ clothing sales torpor, announcing Mr Rowe as his successor.
“I’ve been away from the business for a year now, and that time has seen some significant changes in both my personal life and in the business. I concluded that the time was right to move on from M&S”, said Ms Wade-Gery.
M&S confirmed that provided Ms Wade-Gery does not get another full-time role she will receive eight months worth of salary and benefits, equivalent to £540,000.
She will also be entitled to next year’s performance share plan awards, which could be as much as £2m, but, due to the retailer’s languishing share price, is likely to be in the tens of thousands of pound. The chain’s shares closed down by 18.8p, or 5.5pc, to 324.8p, having lost more than a third of their value already this year.
The question of whether she would return to M&S has been the subject of much speculation in the industry since Mr Rowe took the top job. Retail sources have said that the former Tesco executive had a very different style of management to former “Saturday Boy” Mr Rowe, and was unlikely to be happy having him as her superior.
Kate Bostock, former clothing boss at M&S, earlier this year claimed that “it’s high time a woman ran Marks & Spencer”.
However, insiders have repeatedly played down Ms Wade-Gery’s desire for the role.
“Laura has been a great colleague and has achieved much in her role heading our multi-channel business”, said Mr Rowe.
“Laura has been a valued member of the board and instrumental in the improvement and modernisation of our ecommerce and multi- channel capabilities,” said M&S chairman Robert Swannell.
The daughter of a senior diplomat, Ms Wade-Gery, splits her time between a farm in Suffolk and a flat in London.
She was immortalised in William Dalrymple’s travel novel, In Xanadu, after she retraced Marco Polo’s 13th century voyage from Palestine to China with Mr Dalrymple, a friend who she met at Cambridge University, in the late 1980’s.
Ms Wade-Gery’s departure will bring fresh questions about the lack of senior women in the retail sector, which is dominated by women.
The M&S executive had been a strong advocate of greater female leadership in retail “It isn’t right that out of executives I think only 7pc of the FTSE 100 directors are women…That is not representative of the customer base of those companies”, she told The Telegraph in 2015.
Around 60pc of the 2.8m retail employees in the UK are female and yet there are only three female chief executives.
In addition, the number of women hired for the most senior retail posts declined last year. Of the 45 retail chief executives employed in 2015, just 15pc were women compared with 25pc in 2014, according to a report by Elixirr and Women in Retail – a group formed to raise the issue.