John Lewis staff question outgoing boss Dame Sharon White
Long goodbye: Sharon White, who abolished the chain’s policy of never knowingly underselling, wants to stay until 2025
Staff at John Lewis will this week get the first opportunity to question Dame Sharon White about her surprise resignation from her position as chair of the employee-owned retailer.
You’ll want to learn more about why White is stepping down after just five years – making her the longest-serving boss in the partnership’s nearly 100 years – and what it means for her controversial turnaround plan.
According to an insider, her groundbreaking announcement caused “a lot of thought and sadness” on the shop floor.
This came just weeks after she admitted it would now take longer for the company, which includes grocery chain Waitrose, to return to a sustainable profit.
White, a former civil servant and regulator with no retail experience, has sought to expand the partnership into new areas such as real estate and financial services.
It has also closed underperforming department stores, cut jobs at headquarters and reduced debt.
Losses are narrowing but John Lewis is still reeling from the effects of inflation – which hit “like a hurricane”, in White’s words – and the shift to online shopping.
Staff bonuses have been canceled in two of the last three years.
Their strategy – and the decision to scrap John Lewis’ famous ‘Never knowingly undersold’ price guarantee – was met with strong criticism. In May, the partnership’s powerful governing council voted against its leadership of the company but then supported its future plans.
“She lost the fitting room,” retail veteran Richard Hyman said.
No further vote of confidence in White and her strategy is expected at this Wednesday’s council meeting.
But White, who earns a million pounds a year, is facing questions about her plans for a long farewell.
It recently appointed brand expert Nish Kankiwala as the partnership’s first managing director and is officially set to stay until February 2025 until a successor is found – an idea Hyman calls “unimaginable” and “unacceptable”.
Finding a replacement will not be an easy task, he says. As a mutual, John Lewis cannot offer lucrative stock options to attract high-profile executives.
Due to its partnership structure, it is also considered impregnable to predators.
One option is to downgrade the CEO role to part-time, in line with best corporate practice, but this has its drawbacks.
“What the John Lewis Partnership needs is a retail veteran who has very solid experience in the industry, preferably with an element of business turnaround,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at consultancy GlobalData.
Downgrading the role “will limit their options,” he added.
Unusually, John Lewis’ chairman is also responsible for the company’s commercial performance.
Saunders said, “It’s not really a part-time position.”
“Unfortunately, there are many unclear considerations about how the company should be structured and what role the CEO should play.
“It doesn’t put them in a position to succeed.”
Experts say whoever is chosen to lead the company will have to abandon White’s diversification plans and go back to basics.
“The key themes are in retail – and so are the solutions,” said Hyman. “You have to work for free trade so that the partners get their bonus back.”