Chairman, John Lewis Partnership

Charlie Mayfield Chairman John Lewis Partnership

At the time when the notion of the Big Society is sweeping over the UK, there could be no more appropriate person to be named the most powerful figure in UK retail than the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership. Never before have the ideas of the Partnership seemed so of the moment.

And in the debonair Charlie Mayfield, it has the perfect figurehead. With his side parting and his traditional looks and attire, and background as an army officer, he is a classic establishment figure, fitting precisely the stereotype of a John Lewis Partnership chairman. He is the most acceptable face of business imaginable, at a time when the image of commerce has been tarnished.

For the political world, Mayfield is the dream businessman, head of an organisation that is structured for the benefit if its workers, and which takes its role as a corporate citizen more seriously than any others. No wonder he has a host of roles in the wider world, including being Government-appointed Commissioner at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and chairing Business in the Community’s Business Action on Economic Renewal Leadership Team. The John Lewis Partnership way has become not just a model for the private sector, but the public sector too.

But what makes him successful is that despite being the pin-up of socially conscious retail, there’s nothing wishy-washy about Mayfield. His formidable intellect is accompanied by a steely, highly commercial edge and has enthusiastically built on the radical modernisation of the Partnership embarked upon by his predecessor Sir Stuart Hampson.

From joining the Partnership in 2000 as head of business development, he was one of the first figures in mainstream retail to identify the potential of online and the transformational impact it was going to have on UK retailing. The 2001 acquisition of Buy.com was the platform for John Lewis to build a pioneering online business that was the envy of its peers.

Online has the most significant of the ways in which the Partnership has developed, but what Mayfield has done is create a culture where the huge confidence its two brands instils in consumers can be exploited to the full.

It hasn’t been without challenges. Behind the scenes, he has attempted to get to grips with some of the Partnership’s Byzantine processes and systems, with some success but not without a incurring the wrath of longer-established partners in the infamous letters pages of The Gazette. The key has been making change without compromising the Partnership’s outstanding reputation for knowing its customers.

The Partnership is on form, reflected in being voted Retailer of the Year by the panel of rival retail leaders that judge the Oracle Retail Week Awards. And while the market remains challenging, particularly for the department store business, the Partnership remains in rude health, recording a 20% increase in profits. If JLP is a model retailer for the 21st century, then Mayfield is a model retail leader.