John Lewis’s 150th anniversary serves as a reminder of the importance of outstanding leadership, continuity and commitment to values at a time when the frequency of retail management changes is beginning to rival that of football managers.

John Lewis’s 150th anniversary serves as a reminder of the importance of outstanding leadership, continuity and commitment to values at a time when the frequency of retail management changes is beginning to rival that of football managers.

Thankfully, I sense that the retail volatility is not purely a function of a short-term results-driven culture as it is in the Premier League.

In conjunction with my friends at McQueen I first commented on the increasing management merry-go-round in 2008/09, when I saw it primarily as a function of economic pressures and uncertainties generated by the global credit crunch.

More recently it has become evident that retailers need to rebuild their models and management structure around multichannel and globalisation.

While traditional retail management skills of buying, merchandising or retail operations remain critical, online growth requires new understanding and organisation. To succeed, the two must be integrated seamlessly.

I sense that it is the integration that is the most difficult to get right – at the extreme, is the streetwise, ‘hairy backed’ retail operations director going to relish talking to the young ‘nerdy’ digitally savvy online director?

Stereotypical caricatures, but a valid illustration of the cultural divide to be bridged. It is reminiscent of the issues that often surfaced in the aftermath of big retail mergers.

I remember, for example, the urbane property director at Asda using the word ‘savages’ to describe his new colleagues at MFI after the first management meeting in the wake of the ill-fated 1980s Asda-MFI merger.

I wonder if similar stories will emerge in due course from the Carphone-Dixons merger?

The bottom line is that the identikit picture of a successful retailer in the 1980s or 1990s is no longer the man for the job today.

Perhaps most surprising are the management changes that haven’t occurred despite the disappointments and shocks. Not Phil Harris at Carpetright – family dynasties are a law unto themselves – but Marc Bolland (“moving from a phase of transformation to delivery”) who remains at M&S despite the apparent lack of basic retailing skills.

At Tesco Philip Clarke seems Teflon coated, unlike many of his colleagues, but most surprising is the survival of Dalton Philips at Morrisons where perhaps Sir Ken’s castigation of his strategy at the AGM did him a favour.

Ken’s tirade received little support and was not in good taste but, in today’s world of reality TV and tweets, I see it as more ‘honest’ and helpful than the often automatic support that incumbent management invariably receive from their major institutional investors.

In my experience as a non-executive director the world of corporate governance is all about box-ticking rather than any real critique and analysis of management performance and strategy.

There is a lot to be said for management continuity but equally there must be transparency and accountability, which bring us back to where I started – John Lewis.

  • John Richards is the retail consultant for McQueen.