“I joined when it was a rejuvenation story. It worked very differently then. It had an amazing brand and an amazing heritage, but people used to criticise it for being dull and cold. It’s easy to forget that now.”
That was Peter Ruis recalling his time at John Lewis to Retail Week in 2016, when he was running fashion specialist Jigsaw.
But his words are just as resonant now as he returns to the Partnership to lead its department store division.
Back in 2013, John Lewis won the Retailer of the Year accolade at the Retail Week Awards. As Ruis prepares to start next week, he comes back to a business that is once again feeling battered and bruised.
Staff missed out on the famous bonus last year as the Partnership suffered losses. It was also engulfed in controversy about chair Dame Sharon White’s potential introduction of external investment, which was feared could spell the end of the unique partnership model for John Lewis and grocery stablemate Waitrose.
It has faced questions over the relevance of department stores and a strategy that puts increasing emphasis on new business areas, such as financial services, rather than retail.
Former department stores boss Pippa Wicks abruptly left a year ago. She was replaced on an interim basis by Naomi Simcock, who now becomes John Lewis operations director. White intends to step down as Partnership chair in February next year.
In its most recent half-year results, to July 29, 2023, John Lewis’ trading operating profit slipped £17.9m as sales fell by 2%.
The hiring of Ruis, viewed as very much a retailer, was welcomed by many in the industry, including former colleagues.
The Entertainer chief executive and ex-JLP group chief operating officer Andrew Murphy commented: “Great hire.”
John Lewis Partnership chief executive Nish Kankiwala said that Ruis has “a deep understanding of customers, brands and product from his 30-year career spanning a variety of major high street and online retailers” and would bring “a clear and proven passion for the John Lewis brand and the Partnership model”.
Since leaving John Lewis, in addition to heading Jigsaw, Ruis was in charge of Anthropologie and was most recently chief executive of Indigo, a listed Canadian bookseller and “lifestyle” retailer.
He was also, until taking the John Lewis role, a non-executive director of homewares giant Dunelm, a retailer that has successfully dealt John Lewis some heavy punches in the home category.
Ruis, a graduate in international history and politics from the University of Leeds, has also worked for Levi Strauss & Co, Ted Baker, where he was head of product, and Marks & Spencer, where he was a senior buyer.
Retail analyst Nick Bubb, a long-time follower of John Lewis’ fortunes, was pleased by the hire.
He says: “Peter is a great appointment for John Lewis and, since leaving 10 years ago, he has added CEO expertise to his buying/product expertise, so the very fact he has been attracted to the role is in itself a sign of confidence in prospects.
“But John Lewis is still losing money, and hard-nosed decisions need to be taken about the cost base and the size of the store portfolio.”
Fran Minogue, managing partner at retail headhunter Clarity, observes: “Peter presided over the most successful period in clothing for John Lewis and significantly modernised the product offer, introducing a whole raft of fresh and relevant womenswear brands.
“His broad international experience will stand him in good stead as he tackles the biggest challenge of his career, plus his non-exec directorship at Dunelm gives him a valuable insight into the current UK home market.
“He is also a skilled marketeer, responsible for the famous John Lewis Christmas ads. He has the commerciality to turn it round.”
Retail Week senior analyst Beth Bloomfield says: “The appointment of Peter Ruis will please many who felt that John Lewis had taken its eyes off retail in recent years, instead focusing on services outside of retail such as build-to-rent housing.
“Ruis’ knowledge of the business, and keen understanding of the brand from his previous stint at John Lewis, should foster a review of its proposition. It must focus on great product, brilliant customer service and stores you want to shop in.
“While his predecessor, Pippa Wicks, launched the Anyday range to promote value, Ruis could well review its own brand credentials once again and change direction should he see fit.
“With John Lewis undoubtedly losing some of its customers to both Next and M&S, the appointment of Ruis could also herald some new store formats or trials.
“Under Naomi Simcock, the retailer dipped its toe into new ways of thinking with its Horsham store, but its flagship needs a refresh against some of the glossier stores emerging on Regent Street, and with Ikea set to open on Oxford Street later in 2024.
“With Nish Kankiwala having said the heart of its strategy is to be a ‘brilliant retailer that delights our customer’, Ruis better set to work fast.”
Ruis returns to a Partnership still in a state of flux. Bubb notes: “We don’t yet know who will replace Sharon as chairman and whether JLP will shift to be more of a food retail group in the future – assuming a heavyweight ex-food retailer gets the job.”
In that 2016 interview, Ruis told Retail Week that from his experience of business transformation he had learned to “bottle the good stuff” and jettison the rest. He faces that challenge once again.