Sharon White, the boss of the ailing John Lewis Partnership (JLP), will step down at the end of her five-year tenure in February 2025.
It marks the end of a tenure that has seen the once flagship British brand bruised and battered by economic headwinds and — some would argue — self-inflicted wounds.
The Cambridge-educated economist White enjoyed a high-flying career as an official in the Treasury, joining in 1990 and rising to second permanent secretary in 2013.
She was then appointed as chief executive of the media regulator Ofcom in 2015 until 2019. She also served as a non-executive director at housebuilder Barratt Developments for five years until June this year.
With no previous retail experience, White joined John Lewis as chairman just before the UK was plunged into the pandemic, one of the most tumultuous times for physical retailing.
What went wrong?
Her tenure at the partnership has not been smooth sailing and White has found herself at the centre of public scrutiny for being unable to propel the near 100-year-old business into the future and appeal to customers’ changing habits.
Cuts to staff bonuses and store closures under White’s leadership led many to fall out of favour with the business leader.
Earlier this year, she narrowly survived a vote of confidence on her future leadership from partners of the employee-owned business, after she faced a backlash over her plans to bring in outside investment and raise cash for the embattled retailer
Former John Lewis bosses, including Andy Street, the West Midlands mayor who was the retailer’s managing director from 2007 to 2016, publicly criticised White’s equity push.
“It would be a tragedy if that occurs,” Street told the BBC in March.
Her decision not to reopen one of the brand’s historic department stores in Sheffield after the pandemic, formerly known as Cole Brothers, also spurred outrage in South Yorkshire, leaving a large hole in the city centre and job losses.
John Lewis began the pandemic with 50 department stores, but that has since been whittled down to 34.
Just last week it emerged that the partnership was looking to raise as much as £150m from a sale and leaseback of 12 Waitrose stores, in the company’s latest scramble to shore itself up with extra cash.
It all forms part of White’s turnaround plan which she recently revealed would be pushed back by two years at the group’s half-year results.
White set out her turnaround plan in late 2020 to grow the business profits to £400m in five years. But since then the business has continued to be hit hard by post-pandemic shopping habits and roaring inflation.
‘Much of the issues JLP face are of their own making’
Jonathan De Mello, founder of JDM Retail, told City A.M that much of the issues JLP face are of their “own making”.
“A lack of direction at Waitrose, mooted changes to their unique partnership model, and an aspiration to become a property developer to name a few — and ultimately Dame Sharon is responsible for these,” he told City A.M.
To survive, De Mello said that a new successor will need to scrap a number of the ideas she and her team have been trying to introduce over the past few years.
“One can only hope that whoever replaces her focuses on getting back to basics, with good retailing once again at the core of everything JLP does and stands for. “
He added: “The business very much can turn things around, which — sadly for Dame Sharon — will mean scrapping a number of the ideas she and her team have been trying to enact over the past few years.”
A lack of direction at Waitrose, mooted changes to their unique partnership model, and an aspiration to become a property developer to name a few – and ultimately Dame Sharon is responsible for theseJonathan De Mello
While White will not step down until 2025, her looming departure will raise questions about what may become of her ambitious target for 40 per cent of group profits to come from non-retail ventures by 2030.
As part of this plan, the chairman is trying to erect two build-to-rent buildings in Ealing and Bromley, which are facing a backlash from local “Stop the Towers” protesters.
The grand plans to build 430 new homes above a Waitrose supermarket have also faced a pushback from Peter Mason, leader of Ealing council.
Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell, said: “Whether JLP appoints an internal or an external candidate, and, if the latter, whether they go for someone with prior retail experience or not. If they go internal, then that would suggest belief in Dame Sharon’s strategy and the view that the firm is on the right path back to profitability.
“If not, then perhaps the opposite could hold true, especially if the successor does come with retail industry experience, something which Dame Sharon didn’t have, I believe, and that, in many ways, made her an unusual choice at the time, for all of the skills in evidence on her CV.”