Whenever any high-profile retail executive announces plans to step down, it’s not long before a long string of tributes pour in, hailing their legacy, and impact on the business and wider sector.
The news that Dame Sharon White will depart from the John Lewis Partnership at the end of her current five-year term as chair will evoke similar paeans of polite praise, in public at least.
But there will likely be many privately breathing a sigh of relief, as White’s spell in charge has proved a tumultuous period for the bellwether retailer, one that has been defined by falling margins and pitifully few payouts of the hallowed partnership bonus.
White’s lack of retail experience
When White started in February 2020, the timing could hardly have been worse. And to be fair she impressed with her willingness to visit stores and listen to partners in the early stages of the pandemic.
She also quickly identified that the restructure she had inherited from former chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield, in which the management of Waitrose and John Lewis were yoked together, wasn’t going to work, by bringing back separate executive directors for both Waitrose, under James Bailey, and John Lewis, now under Naomi Simcock.
But in truth the appointment of White was as much a flaw as the restructure itself, and one that many feel should never have started in the first place.
The business needed a hard-nosed, customer-focused retail chair, not a career civil servant making her first foray into retail.
However impressive her CV, White was just not the person qualified to take over one of, if not the most, uniquely structured and highly revered retail businesses in Britain.
As GlobalData’s Neil Saunders put it today: “Dame Sharon did not cause all of the Partnership’s problems. However, neither was her diagnosis of them correct.”
White’s lack of retail experience was only compounded by the promotion of former Hovis boss Nish Kankiwala to the brand-new position of partnership CEO in March. His reputation as a turnaround specialist, and stints at Burger King and PepsiCo, brought some food and drink knowledge back into the business, but little experience in terms of retail. And in deferring more responsibility for the day-to-day running of the partnership, White had watered down her own position as chair, on paper at least.
The idea was that Kankiwala would focus on “driving profitability day to day”, leaving White free to focus on “our big commercial choices”.
The key tranche of that has been a plan to transition the partnership to ensure 40% of its profits come from outside of retail, significantly through building up to 10,000 buy to let houses.
On paper, if JLP were a thriving retail business, or at least with a bench of senior executives strong enough to explore such a move outside the group’s core skillset, it might have turned out to be feasible and even visionary. But amid inevitable delays and setbacks it seems increasingly unrealistic a prospect – even without the number of fires that management need to put out.
JLP’s problems will remain
White’s tenure is set to last until February 2025, although it hasn’t been confirmed whether she will stay in post until then. Given the intense heat of public scrutiny over the past couple of years, it wouldn’t be a surprise if both White and the partnership decided to formerly part ways sooner than that.
The much-anticipated question on everyone’s lips now will be who will JLP turn to as her replacement? White’s departure will not mark an end to JLP’s problems – they have remained despite her efforts, not because of. But this offers the Partnership Council a rare, if not their last chance to genuinely turn the business around.
The pressure is on deputy chair Rita Clifton, the former CEO of Interbrand, and the rest of the nominations committee to ensure they get it right this time.