The incoming chairman of John Lewis Partnership is certainly a leftfield choice.
Before becoming CEO of broadcasting regulator Ofcom in 2015, Sharon White spent her career in the public sector, including a stint as second permanent secretary at the Treasury. The Cambridge-educated economist had been tipped as the next governor of the Bank of England. And she has no retail experience.
Yet, somehow, this bold appointment feels like the right one.
John Lewis Partnership’s outgoing chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield admitted it was not a conventional decision, but added: “These are not conventional retail times, nor is the partnership a conventional company.”
He is right on both counts. John Lewis is owned by its 84,000 staff, who receive a share of its annual bonus. White believes that social purpose and commercial success “flourish best together”, and this approach should align well with John Lewis’s values.
John Lewis Partnership has not been immune to these pressures: last year, profits at the group, which includes Waitrose, fell 45.4%. This was largely a result of a weak performance at department store arm John Lewis & Partners, which was hit by challenging market conditions and increased discounting across the sector.
Part of the problem was John Lewis’s “Never Knowingly Undersold” policy, which forced it to slash prices to match those of struggling rivals Debenhams and House of Fraser. White would do well to get rid of this outdated policy once and for all.
It is true that White is an economist by background, not a retailer. But she will be able to lean on the expertise of Paula Nickolds and Rob Collins, managing directors of John Lewis and Waitrose respectively. Collins joined the partnership in 1993, and Nickolds in 1994 – they know the company inside out.
White’s leadership skills will undoubtedly be put to the test – she will have to unite the partnership under her vision, and this would be enough of a challenge for someone with a track record of success at the top of big companies. However, bringing in a chairman from outside of the company, and indeed the industry, could help John Lewis make the radical changes it needs to avoid the fate of some of its rivals.