Sharon White’s exit was inevitable – now John Lewis needs to get back to basics
After five years in the job, the John Lewis Partnership chair will leave in February 2025. Gordon Young, founder of The Drum, says the end of a tumultuous tenure might just be the fresh start the retailer needs.
John Lewis's chair will step down next year / Adobe Stock
Appointing Dame Sharon White chairman of the John Lewis Partnership was always a bold decision. The career civil servant had absolutely no retail – let alone commercial – experience.
She is undoubtedly a talented individual. Educated at Cambridge, she cut her teeth in the UK Treasury before becoming chief executive of Ofcom.
A glittering CV for the public sector. But one that was irrelevant to the gritty, fast-paced, ruthless commercial world of running John Lewis.
And there she had her work cut out turning around what is the UK’s leading employee-owned business. With discount retailers taking market share at one end and a resurgent M&S at the other, Waitrose is being squeezed in the middle, just as the cost of living squeezes the middle classes.
John Lewis, the department store, is battling trends where its format is seen as old-fashioned. Plans to diversify from retail into property development are proving a distraction.
It was becoming obvious White did not have the relevant skills to turn things around. In fairness, she sees this herself and leaves a relatively strong business that has yet to pass the point of no return.
An experienced management with strong retail skills can turn this business around. But this will mean a focus on the basics - getting the right product in the right place for the right price. As White discovered, this is not as easy as it sounds.