Industry reaction to the appointment of Sharon White as the new chairman of John Lewis Partnership has been mixed, as questions over her lack of retail experience are balanced with the appeal of bringing a “fresh pair of eyes” to the business.
White will join the partnership from broadcasting regulator Ofcom in 2020, replacing outgoing chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield.
She has an impressive CV, including an economics degree from Cambridge and positions at the World Bank, the British Embassy in Washington, and as an adviser at the prime minister’s policy unit when Tony Blair was in power. She was second permanent secretary to the Treasury from 2013 to 2015.
Ofcom’s chairman Lord Burns said she had been an “outstanding” chief executive, and praised her for driving the organisation forward, including the implementation of ultrafast broadband. During her tenure, Ofcom became the first independent regulator of the BBC.
However, some industry insiders questioned whether a career in public service would stand White in good stead as John Lewis Partnership chairman.
One retail chairman told Drapers: “[White] is obviously very successful but the question being asked is, given John Lewis’s position today, doesn’t it need someone with at least some strategic and/or retail expertise?
“She should be a great fit with its business model and ownership structure, but if the company ends up with financial difficulties, then its entire business model will go to pot.”
However, he added: “It helps that they have employed externally rather than internally, as some of John Lewis’s people are a bit institutionalised – they’ve worked there forever and have never been anywhere else.
“[White] will bring a new outlook. But if she’s too sympathetic and not in the commercial camp, then there lies a real danger.”
The managing director of a high street fashion chain said White was “an interesting and innovative choice”.
He continued: “The challenge for John Lewis now is defining what the role is and how will it transpire – is it a non-executive or executive role? If it’s a traditional chair role then I think [White] will be fantastic and has brilliant experience; but if it’s a hands-on executive chair role then there’s a challenge around her commercial expertise.”
He said the problem lies ”in the structure of the role, not with [White] herself”.
“That said, it’s great to see John Lewis employ externally, as she will bring a fresh pair of eyes to the business.”
One former John Lewis executive agreed that bringing in an external chairman would help the business to realise its problems and “drive change” with a fresh, new perspective.
“However, they do need someone with good retail and customer experience. Given how successful [White] is, she will be well aware of her weaknesses, so I expect her to bring in a team with a solid understanding of digital trading.”
Announcing White’s appointment, outgoing chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield admitted that she was ”not the conventional retail choice”.
But he added: “These are not conventional retail times, nor is the partnership a conventional company. Sharon is an inspirational leader with the personal and professional skills to ensure the partnership continues to innovate and change, while at the same time retaining and strengthening our distinctive character and democratic vitality.”
The appointment comes after John Lewis Partnership, which includes Waitrose, revealed that profits fell 45.4% to £160m for the year to 26 January 2019.
As a result, its staff bonus took a hit, falling to the lowest level since 1953, at just 3% of annual salaries.