Greenbury was born in Carlisle and educated at Ealing County Grammar School in London. As a young man he claimed to have been, “The most caned boy in school”, an achievement that he suggested had taught him, “The importance of discipline.” Although academically able, at over six foot Greenbury's real enthusiasm lay in playing sport, which he excelled at. He played football for his school's 1st XI, and later at county level, while playing tennis as well. However, after his mother contracted cancer, Greenbury felt obliged to leave school with only six O-levels and abandon sport; opting to start earning at the age of sixteen and missing out on a university education. Just before his seventeenth birthday, Greenbury took a modest job at Lillywhites.
Greenbury's stay at Lilywhite’s was short lived. He later accepted a management trainee position at Marks and Spencer, who fortunately did not require A-levels for their programme. His hard work was soon recognized by Simon, Lord Marks, and he was taken under the wing of the founding father’s son. Mark's dubbed Greenbury “Big Fellah”, and soon moved him to head office as a trainee merchandiser and personal assistant to his son in law.
It was in men’s knitwear where Greenbury made his name in the early 1960s, shortly after his marriage to first wife Siân Hughes (1959). As noted by Marks, ‘Rick’ as he soon became known, was a retailer through and through. Spotting the trend towards casual menswear Greenbury formed a strong friendship with Harry Djanogoly, who ran the knitwear company Nottingham Manufacturing, and transformed the then unknown aisle in every Marks and Spencer store into a profits power house for the company. This reputedly got Djanogoly his KBE and Greenbury his promotion.
By 1972, Greenbury had been made the youngest director in the company’s history, only twenty years after being welcomed by the business. Then, at the age of forty-one, Greenbury was made a managing director, and by 1978 he had worked in every area of the business; including food, property, and, of course, clothing. In 1984, shortly after becoming chairman, Derek Rayner decided it was time to outline his immediate successor, and, in 1988, Greenbury took his place as chief executive. In 1991, he was promoted again, becoming executive chairman, in keeping with Marks and Spencer's business traditions.
Despite later criticism, when the company smashed the £1 billion profit barrier in 1997, the City sang Greenbury's praises; although the impact of his tenure became the subject of intrigue in the aftermath of the downturn. For every year that Greenbury was in charge, Marks and Spencer held more than twice the clothing market of any other high street name, and even after the crash, and Greenbury's departure, they remained the only retailer holding over 10% of the market.
In 1997, Greenbury received an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 1997.
In 1999, Greenbury's career as a CEO and chairman came to an end. He bore criticism as he stood down. One journalist would later impart; "Life has been unfair to Sir Richard, he had forty years of unmitigated success followed by one poor one; and that's the one he'll be remembered for." Despite this, Greenbury talked openly about the problems with the leadership succession that ultimately caused a slump at the retailer, as the four possible candidates for the job engaged in a bitter power struggled that stimulated headlines such as "Sparks Fly at Marks", in a Channel 4 documentary. The downturn in Marks and Spencer's fortunes has also been attributed to, in part, the costly Littlewoods acquisition, which reportedly cost several million. After stepping down, Greenbury went on to serve as a director with ICI, Zeneca, C&G, Game, British Gas, Lloyds TSB, and as a member of the supervisory board at Philips. He retired in 2010. Though his tenure has been remembered for the downturn in profits and share prices that followed his departure, it was under Greenbury that Marks and Spencer undertook its greatest international expansion, had the greatest number of employees, stores and floor space, and the highest share prices, share of the market, and pre- and post-tax profits of any retailer in Europe; and, excluding companies operating under multiple names, the world.Number of UK stores: 1985 (before appointment) - 283; 1998 - 300
Sales: 1985 - £3,213,000,000; 1998 - £8,343,300,000
Pre-tax profits: 1985 - £303,400,000, 1998 - £1,168,000,000