The surprise appointment of Ofcom boss Sharon White to succeed Sir Charlie Mayfield as chair of the John Lewis Partnership was unforeseen, but not unwelcome.
In the industry, the speculation had been that the business was most likely to turn to an experienced retail operator such as former WHSmith boss Kate Swann to fill the role.
But, as has often been the case, John Lewis had a surprise up its sleeve – a very big surprise, as Mayfield acknowledged when he revealed the appointment.
“The new normal is proving as susceptible to unconventional times as some of the business models they unseated”
He said: “I readily recognise that Sharon is not the conventional retail choice. But these are not conventional retail times, nor is the partnership a conventional company.”
His observation about the present tumultuous conditions, which have persisted for some time and are likely to continue, is spot on.
JLP’s decision not simply to bow to convention about the sort of person who should steer it through may well prove inspired, even though it could carry some risk.
Out with the old
The new normal, a multichannel or digital-first approach, is proving as susceptible to unconventional times as some of the business models they unseated.
You can see that in this week’s dismal results from fashion retailer Quiz, which floated less than two years ago boasting of its omnichannel credentials, only to issue a slew of profit warnings. Or in the famous department store names such as BHS, House of Fraser and Debenhams, whose attempts to adapt failed to stave off insolvency processes.
In unconventional times, the old certainties must be questioned, and old expectations challenged and revised.
“John Lewis’ unique structure puts it less in thrall to often short-term demands of investors in public companies”
That is happening at JLP, which is having to endure tough conditions itself, but is attempting a decisive shift that places more emphasis on experiences and services rather than purely product, which would have traditionally been the case.
In some ways, John Lewis has greater licence to change – its unique structure puts it less in thrall to often short-term demands of investors in public companies.
The first principle in its constitution states: “The partnership’s ultimate purpose is the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.”
Some fresh perspectives from White, who is very unlike the usual suspects who often fill boardrooms, could help the retailer fulfil that purpose and continue to succeed in new ways.
While she may not have direct retail experience, she brings knowledge of the shifting consumer landscape from Ofcom, which oversees a communications industry that has been disrupted just as much as retail by the changes wrought by new technology.
John Lewis’ distinct purpose provides it with an advantage very much in tune with the times, because it is about a higher calling that can bring greater imagination and commitment from colleagues than any appeal to shareholder value ever would.
Swim the other way
But it’s not only at one-off businesses such as JLP where unconventional thinking can lead to enduring success. One of Walmart founder Sam Walton’s 10 business rules was to “swim upstream”.
He said: “Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom. If everybody else is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction.”
“White is a welcome new arrival to the world of retail. She faces some big challenges but may stimulate new solutions”
And who would have thought that Greggs, famous for its old-fashioned sausage rolls, would be first mover with a vegan version?
Greggs reported in its full-year results that “the extraordinary level of social and general media coverage that followed has attracted additional visits to our shops, offering a great opportunity to showcase the many improvements that have been made to our shops and product offering in recent years”.
Sometimes, unconventional thinking can clearly allow established businesses not just to stay in tune with the new, but to emphasise traditional strengths by prompting people to consider them anew.
Yes, going against the grain can bring the danger of leaping on a trend that’s here today and gone tomorrow. It can lead to change for the sake of change. It can amount to no more than the emperor’s new clothes.
But unalloyed respect for ‘how things are done’ can be just as damaging, or more so, in today’s environment.
White is a welcome new arrival to the world of retail. She faces some big challenges but may stimulate new solutions.