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Marks & Spencer CEO faces crucial tests

By James Davey

LONDON (Reuters) - Next month Marks & Spencer will come under intense scrutiny as it prepares to reveal new fashion ranges, a strategy update and annual results, events that could shape the future of the British retailer and its chief executive.

Marc Bolland, CEO since May 2010, is under pressure to revive the firm's clothing business, which has been losing market share to firms like Primark and Debenhams .

M&S reported a seventh straight quarterly fall in underlying general merchandise sales on April 11.

The 129-year-old retailer has been the subject of renewed takeover speculation and management also seems to be in some disarray, with the firm recently parting company, without explanation, with its head of lingerie and beauty, Janie Schaffer, just three months after her much-heralded appointment.

New autumn/winter clothing ranges are widely seen as make or break for a new general merchandise team, assembled by Bolland and led by John Dixon, the former boss of food, and Belinda Earl, the former CEO of Debenhams and Jaeger.

Bolland has repeatedly said the new team will not make a major impact on sales until these ranges hit the shops in July.

But he will give an update on strategy and launch the ranges to analysts and business media on May 14, a day before M&S hopes to win over Britain's influential fashion press.

A week later Bolland will present M&S's 2012-13 results, with analysts on average forecasting a 7 percent fall in pretax profit to 658 million pounds ($1 billion), according to a poll carried on the firm's website.

That would be a second straight annual decline, though the dividend is expected to be maintained.

Bolland has said Dixons' team is starting to deliver operational improvements, such as improved availability, but at the May 14 event he will have to address criticism from analysts and shoppers that M&S's womenswear lacks focus with too many sub brands, is poorly presented in stores, with sometimes weak marketing.

"Undoubtedly this will be a high profile event and key to the momentum of its general merchandise divisional revenue going forward," said Trevor Green, head of institutional equities at Aviva Investors, an M&S shareholder.

Analysts expect Bolland to stress that the July launch represents just the first of three phases of the autumn/winter season.

Christmas 2013 will likely be the acid test for the CEO, who has presided over a 15 percent rise in M&S's share price since he joined, partly due to periodic bouts of takeover speculation.

"The proof of the pudding will be in how well the range is merchandised and stocked instore come September, and how helpful the weather is," said independent retail analyst Nick Bubb.

"They will be desperately hoping that we don't get an 'Indian Summer'."

Preceding all this, on May 8, M&S will host an investor day at its new e-commerce distribution centre at Castle Donington, central England, with management updating on the progress of its supply chain and IT investments, ahead of the launch of a new web platform next year.

M&S is spending 2.4 billion pounds over three years on store revamps, logistics, IT and systems, as well as selective investment overseas, as it seeks to become an international multi-channel retailer, connecting with customers through stores, the internet and mobile phones.

"The big issue for M&S is that the money that they are investing needs to start producing an uplift to sales and returns, and if that is not the case then they need to moderate their investment spend," said one of the retailer's top 10 investors. ($1 = 0.6477 British pounds)

(Additional reporting by Sinead Cruise; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

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