Marks & Spencer’s management confessed existential dread to shareholders today, as its new chairman warned the retailer could disappear within years if the business is not overhauled.

Speaking at the company’s annual general meeting (AGM), chairman Archie Norman said: “In decades to come, there could be no M&S.”

It marked a blunt first appearance for the former Asda boss, who succeeded Robert Swannell as M&S’s chair in September last year.

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Arguing that the company is in need of radical change, Norman said it was on a “burning platform” and did not have a “God-given right to exist”.

M&S has embarked on a painful programme of store closures, which will result in 100 branches leaving the high street. The move is part of a sweeping five-year transformation plan, though Norman said today that most of the planned closures will take place in the first two years.

He added that unlike its closest peer Next, M&S has left its store estate relatively unchanged meaning the whole portolio must now undergo a radical overhaul.

Chief executive Steve Rowe also refused to rule out the possibility that even more stores could close. He said that the retailer must “take tough decisions if it’s going to survive”.

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But it was made clear at the meeting that these decisions are not likely to include a merger or strategic alliance, following the steps taken by Sainsbury’s and Asda or Tesco in its recently announced deal with Carrefour.

“Our destiny lies in our own hands,” said Norman.

The retailer’s investors were also warned to expect more pain in the short term.

“Results in the next two years are not the most important thing,” said Norman. “We’re here to deliver a profitable, growing business in five years’ time.”

Retail analyst Patrick O’Brien of GlobalData told City A.M. that the changes being implemented could fall short of what is needed.

“They’re only talking about 100 store closures over the next two or three years, they’re starting quite late,” he said. “Whether it’s too late we can’t really say with any certainty.”

Meanwhile Richard Lim of Retail Economics warned that all retailers must act quickly to adapt to the new environment or risk disappearing.

“If businesses don’t change fast enough we’re talking years not decades,” he said.

Read more: M&S fashion brands are under threat as the retailer cuts costs

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