It may have taken more than 150 years, but the New Year will mark a new dawn for John Lewis.

For the first time since the retailer’s first store opened on London’s Oxford Street in 1864, the managing director’s office will be occupied by a woman.

Paula Nickolds, 43, captured many column inches as she emerged as successor to outgoing boss Andy Street – who departs on Friday to focus on his bid to become Mayor of West Midlands.

Nickolds is understood to have beat fellow internal contenders Mark Lewis, Tom Athron and Andrew Murphy to the coveted position and there is no arguing that the John Lewis lifer has earned that opportunity in the hot seat.

Dedicated service

Having joined the department store business as a graduate in 1994, working in the haberdashery department of its Oxford Street branch, Nickolds has spent 22 years slogging her way up the John Lewis ladder.

After toying with the idea of becoming a teacher, she moved into buying roles across various departments including clothing, furniture and homewares, before becoming the head of buying for furniture.

Stints as head of product development and buying director for John Lewis’s home category followed, before earning a seat on the management board in July 2013 in the role of buying and brand director.

In September last year, Nickolds was named commercial director, a role that has seen her take on responsibility for new shops – including its experiential new Leeds and Chelmsford stores.

She also spearheaded the launch of its &Beauty spas and the development of catering partnerships.

Clarity Search managing partner Fran Minogue says: “Paula has clearly done a good job as commercial director – she has innovated and moved the business forward.

“She is close to the core fashion, beauty and home customer and that must have worked in her favour.”

‘History and stability’

Nickolds’ work in revitalising and modernising John Lewis’s stores across categories has been a key part of a drive led by John Lewis Partnership chairman Charlie Mayfield alongside Street to create a multichannel business fit for the 21st century.

For Moira Benigson, managing partner of executive search firm the MBS Group, Nickolds is the right person to pick up that baton being handed over by Street.

“Paula brings a history and a stability. She is very, very popular within John Lewis,” Benigson tells Retail Week.

“The business needed to be modernised, which is what has happened under Charlie [Mayfield] and Andy [Street].

“Now they don’t need a radical shake-up or change. They need someone to drive it through the next phase of retail because all the hard work in transforming the business has been done.

“It needs a leader that people like and will follow and I think Paula is exactly that.”

A ‘people person’

It is that “people person” element of her character in particular that has made Nickolds a popular choice.

Benigson describes her as an “open, friendly and very loyal” member of the John Lewis team who “embodies the brand”.

Another source close to the retailer adds: “Paula’s very focused on the customer and is a really inspiring person to work with.

“She’s the sort of leader that will make people think: ‘I really want to do the very best job I can for this person.’”

And despite the strong position Street leaves John Lewis in, hard work is exactly what Nickolds will be urging her new charges to do.

Driving further innovation in stores will almost certainly be high on Nickolds’ agenda, and Benigson suggests that a greater focus on its own label ranges will be key to John Lewis’s future success, given the increasing costs of importing goods from overseas in a turbulent post-Brexit climate.

Details of exactly what her priorities are will come to the fore next year, but whatever her vision for the business is, Nickolds will demand that no laurels are rested on.

Shortly after being appointed to the role of buying and brand director back in 2013, Nickolds told Retail Week: “I’m never completely satisfied. It’s both the joy and the pain of the job – I’m always seeing opportunities to do it better.

“The minute you stop you get stagnation. I really get the John Lewis brand and I’m proud of it, but I can still see more potential.”

From January, Nickolds will be in the perfect place to ensure John Lewis fulfils that potential.