Even in an industry where surprise hires have, strangely, become less surprising, Sharon White’s appointment as chair of the John Lewis Partnership, succeeding Sir Charlie Mayfield, is a leftfield choice.
White, who has spent the past five years as media regulator Ofcom’s chief executive, has no direct retail experience – but that’s not so unusual in today’s market when so many in retail are looking beyond the familiar for answers to the challenges they face.
However, she also has very little experience of working in a commercial environment and is not used to the relentless trading climate of retail businesses, though in 2017 she took a step outside her public sector background to nab a seat on the board of Barratt Homes, which is chaired by Tesco’s John Allan.
While there will be naysayers who believe the appointment is too risky, many industry observers believe White will be an unusual but ultimately wise choice.
“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,” said Mayfield at the time of White’s appointment.
“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.”
“It’s an absolutely extraordinary appointment,” says headhunter MBS’ founder, Moira Benigson. “It certainly tears up the rule book.”
“Charlie Mayfield didn’t have commercial experience – he was in the army and then McKinsey”
Moira Benigson, MBS
She points to John Lewis managing director Paula Nickolds and Waitrose managing director Rob Collins, who both joined the retailer as graduate trainees and began their careers on the shop floor.
“The team underneath [White] is very good and so there is no reason why it [with her lack of commercial experience] shouldn’t work,” she adds.
“Charlie Mayfield didn’t have commercial experience – he was in the army and then McKinsey. I don’t think you need retail experience for this role, you need leadership skills. And it’s time anyway for retailers to branch out.”
White, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants to the UK, became one of the most powerful women in Whitehall as permanent secretary to the Treasury where she oversaw the government’s spending cuts.
She arrives at John Lewis at a time when the business is struggling to hold its own, despite significant competitive advantage, in a turbulent consumer and retail market.
The changing face of the high street, the continued investment needed to make sure John Lewis stays ahead of the curve – without the usual recourse to raising money from the markets – and the problems that an arguably dying department store market presents, combine to form a tough challenge.
“She’s highly regarded and very impressive,” says Clarity founder and managing partner Fran Minogue.
“The only reservation is that JLP needs to make some tough commercial decisions and tackle the structural issues facing our industry, and she will need to surround herself with colleagues and advisers who fully understand the scale of the challenge facing both JLP and Waitrose in the current climate.”
John Lewis’ unique partnership culture is also under pressure. Last year’s bonus was 3% – the lowest level since 1954 – and its final pension (one of the last of its kind in British business) will come to an end weeks into White’s tenure, which will begin early next year.
Many of the benefits of working at the business are fast disappearing as it grapples with how to operate a partnership model in a punishing market.
The partnership brings the added challenge of ensuring that partners – who have voting power – are happy with the policy changes being pushed through by management.
It is here, rather than on the shop floor, where White’s talents could really shine.
“As her dealings with BT last year show, Sharon White is not to be messed with”
Fran Minogue, Clarity
The state-educated Cambridge graduate has, first as a civil servant and then as a regulator, shown herself to be astute in various corridors of power, unafraid of difficult decisions but also able to get the right people onside, as was proven during her tenure at Ofcom.
Her appointment at the regulator was viewed as controversial at first – a lack of direct experience was cited as cause for concern, as it has been in some quarters with her appointment at John Lewis – but she proved herself once more, launching the first full-scale review of the telecoms market in a decade despite stiff opposition from big players such as BT.
Minogue observes: “As her dealings with BT last year show, [she is] not to be messed with. She would clearly bring a consumer-centric perspective [to John Lewis] and her appointment certainly shows a real commitment to diversity.”
White has described her management style as a “delegating (and I hope empowering) style of management”. She has also undertaken “a lot of coaching and mentoring, particularly of women at the early stages of their career – trying to boost their confidence to put their hat in the ring for more senior jobs. I try to be open and accessible to staff at all grades.”
If White – who prefers the job title ‘chairman’ – can ensure that John Lewis’ partners are onboard as the retailer grapples with its purpose in a changing world, she will have set a stable base for the battle ahead.