Since October, when Tesco announced that UK CEO Jason Tarry was standing down, colleagues and customers have wondered: what will he do next? How does he follow such a hugely distinguished 34-year career?

So now we know. This week – days after leaving Tesco – Tarry was unveiled as the new chairman of the John Lewis Partnership (JLP), effective September, replacing the outgoing Dame Sharon White, who will leave six months ahead of her full five-year contract.

A fantastic appointment for JLP

It’s a massive coup for JLP to bring in someone of Tarry’s experience, with his vast knowledge and contacts (in grocery and fashion) underpinned by superb business acumen and an intellect that was somewhat masked by his amiable personality. And the recruitment of such a seasoned and brilliant retail operator has finally righted the massive wrong committed with the appointment of White, a highly intelligent and personable leader herself but who, as a total retail and business novice, was left badly exposed, in the face of JLP’s numerous challenges. The nomination committee – led by the veteran deputy chair Rita Clifton – has got it right this time.

The bigger surprise is why Tarry wants the job. It is as challenging as any turnaround in retail: the department store model is broken, picked off by more nimble and/or bigger online beasts; while the (sub-scaled) Waitrose supermarkets are also losing share. After racking up huge losses and making swingeing cuts, it’s making barely any money (£42m on £12.4bn of sales). And though Tarry was full of praise for the employee-owned model, the culture is notoriously bureaucratic, while as a mutual it also has limited capital markets access. Staff morale is also said to be at an all-time low, what with no bonus for three of the last four years, and a further 11,000 redundancies in the works, including 545 at its Enfield dark store last month

Tarry has unfinished business

On the other hand, after his batteries are recharged over the summer, maybe the sheer scale of the challenge appeals. Tarry was instrumental in turning round Tesco. His appointment as chief product officer helped to reset Tesco’s moral compass and salvaged its reputation among suppliers following the accounting scandal of 2014. But even with his elevation to CEO in 2018, and his key role in the launch of Aldi Price Match and Clubcard Prices – initiatives that as this week’s Tesco results show, keep on giving  – he was never quite top dog, overlooked in favour of outsider Ken Murphy when group CEO Sir Dave Lewis stood down in 2020. Now he can cement his reputation as a retail turnaround legend.

Is it the impossible job? No. The obvious comparison is with Marks & Spencer. With its outdated combination of sub-scale grocery and underperforming GM, M&S was written off for years. Until a certain Archie Norman arrived in 2017.

Norman, who was ‘non executive’ chairman of M&S in name only in the early years, has let others take the limelight as the business has righted itself. But he was the primary architect of its turnaround. And today, M&S is making 10 times as much money on similar sales. Tarry must hope that, as chairman, he plays a similar, understatedly brilliant hand.

Chairman’s powerful hand

And unlike Norman this will certainly be no part-time role. With a new CEO (Nish Kankiwala) under him, and two divisional MDs (Waitrose executive director James Bailey and new John Lewis boss Peter Ruis), speculation that the chairman’s role would be downgraded was quickly put to bed, with the JLP statement clarifying that “the time commitment, term and remuneration of the chairman’s role will remain unchanged”.

Tarry’s first job will be building the right team around him. And excitement will be tinged with fear among the senior management at his appointment. At the same time Tarry, with his impeccable people skills, commands such respect and indeed devotion among former Tesco colleagues that he will surely have little difficulty attracting key executives out of Welwyn to help fulfil the mission, while suppliers will treat the business with renewed respect. 

It’s still an almighty challenge. But amid early signs that JLP is starting to turn a corner after a truly terrible period – with a newly rejigged business plan that promises to double down on retail, through much-needed investments in stores, supply chain and training – the appointment of Jason Tarry offers one quality above all others to the despairing JLP workforce: hope.