Marks and Spencer has lost its fourth clothing chief in a decade as the British retailer struggles to turn round the business and attract younger customers.

Jill McDonald, managing director of M&S’s clothing and home arm for just over 18 months, will step down with immediate effect, the company said. It is thought she was asked to leave, say people familiar with the situation.

Ms McDonald was brought in to inject new life into company’s ailing clothing arm in October 2017 after she was poached from car parts and bike company Halfords — the same year chairman Archie Norman was brought in to lead a full-scale overhaul.

Steve Rowe, chief executive, said Ms McDonald had created a “strong platform for the transformation” of the clothing business, but the company “now needs to move on at pace to address longstanding issues in our clothing and home-supply chain”.

The big problem for the 135-year-old retailer is an ageing customer base and problems of maintaining stock levels.

Although the company cut the average age of its customers for the first time last year, it was not enough to save Ms McDonald’s job. The company declined to comment on where she would go next.

Mr Rowe will take charge of the clothing and home business directly until a replacement is found.

M&S said in May that revenues in its clothing arm were down 3.6 per cent in total, compared with a 0.6 per cent decline in its food business.

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The departure of Ms McDonald follows a pattern at the company, which has a history of clothing bosses only holding the post for a short time. This includes Mr Rowe who last filled the job between 2015 and 2017.

Jo Jenkins, who ran M&S’s clothing department in 2017, before Ms McDonald took over said you “live or die by availability”. In February a special promotion on jeans fell flat after they sold out.

“It’s a tough job for someone without clear clothing experience,” Ms Jenkins added.

At the company’s annual general meeting on Tuesday, Mr Rowe specifically cited problems with the clothing department, referring to the February sales promotion.

“This led to some of the worst availability in casual trousers I’ve seen in my life,” he said.

In a bid to counter Ms McDonald’s lack of experience in the clothing business, M&S appointed Jill Stanton, who had previously worked at Next and US retailer Old Navy, to the women and menswear sections in March 2018. They also appointed Wes Taylor, former managing director of UK retailer Burton.

“I don’t think this is particularly good sign on current trading,” said Kate Calvert, an analyst at Investec. “The current strategy hasn’t really been given a chance to run.”

Ms Jenkins said the clothing business would benefit from Mr Rowe being back in charge. “Steve is brilliant at the details, so that he is back in charge of the day to day is really good to read.”

As well as holding the top job at Halfords, Ms McDonald had also headed fast-food group McDonald’s UK business and worked at British Airways.

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She said when she joined: “I have long been an M&S customer and professional fan, so working with the brand was a career opportunity that I just couldn’t turn down.”

M&S clothing bosses since 2008

Kate Bostock, 2008-2012

After three years at Asda overseeing product-picking for the George clothing line, Ms Bostock joined M&S in 2004 to lead the womenswear department. She was appointed as head of clothing in 2008, where she remained for four years before being poached after an 18-month courtship by online fashion retailer Asos. Ms Bostock’s time as director of product and trading at Asos was cut short after seven months when she left to become chief executive of Coast.

John Dixon, 2012-2015

An M&S lifer, Mr Dixon began his career as a store management trainee in 1986 and spent 29 years at the retailer before quitting in 2015. Before he was appointed as head of clothing in 2012, Mr Dixon had run stores in Paris, served as director of food, and been assistant to past chief executive Stuart Rose. He left to become chief executive of David Jones, the Australian department store chain.

Steve Rowe, 2015-2017

Ms McDonald’s departure will not be the first time Mr Rowe has filled a gap in the tumultuous position of head of clothing. After Mr Dixon’s departure in 2015, Mr Rowe picked up those responsibilities alongside his new chief executive role. Helen Weir, chief financial officer, also supported Mr Rowe’s increased workload. Mr Rowe is the only person who has served as head of clothing and still has a job at the retailer.

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Jo Jenkins, 2015-2017

Jo Jenkins, M&S director of womenswear, lingerie and beauty, was given an expanded role as clothing and beauty director under Mr Rowe’s leadership of the department. When Ms McDonald joined the business, Ms Jenkins left after three weeks to become chief executive at White Stuff.

Jill McDonald, 2017-2019

Ms McDonald was the fourth person to take on the role as head of clothing in the last decade, after joining from Halfords where she had been chief executive since 2015.

Antonia Cundy

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