Sharon White portrait in Waitrose

Source: Waitrose

We should not be surprised Sharon White was made boss of John Lewis Partnership, which includes Waitrose, despite having no retail or food experience. These days interviewing panels seem to see management as a transferable skill. No need to have any pertinent track record in the type of business you aspire to run.

As long as you are a whizz kid in a high-status endeavour, preferably educated in an elite university, and have passed through an influential management consultancy, thinktank, quango, or the upper echelons of the civil service, you are deemed capable of running some of the biggest businesses in the land. 

I am now kicking myself that in the early years of my career I was too defeated by the ‘relevant experience’ section of the application form. I might not be penning this column had I blagged my way through interviews explaining that my credentials in Field A, despite having no apparent bearing on required Field Z, perfectly equipped me for the latter.

Government already operates on this principle. So we have had Defra ministers who couldn’t cook a Sunday roast or keep a windowsill parsley plant alive, and health ministers whose knowledge of human pathology could be fitted on the back of a paracetamol pack.

I am no admirer of supermarkets, but many of the people who run them are notably competent in their roles, precisely because they are steeped in the grocery trade.

Think of Terry Leahy, who rose through Tesco ranks from stacking shelves, and Ken Morrison, who grew his chain from two market stalls. Or Malcolm Walker, who built his Iceland chain from a single small shop in Oswestry. Then there’s Archie Norman, now at M&S, who has food retail in his veins.

This JLP debacle is a costly example of why boards must appoint individuals who have earned their spurs on the shop floor. Whether you’re looking at Waitrose or any other chain, profitable food retailing calls for candidates with a strong background in the business.