John Lewis’s online boss is making a big step to head M and M Direct, but given his multichannel successes he should be a good fit at the etailer.

John Lewis’s online boss Jonathon Brown is to step into the spotlight as a chief executive for the first time, after being named chief executive of discount etailer M and M Direct.

Brown, who will succeed Steve Robinson in the M and M role, has established a name for himself in the world of online retail for his part in building JohnLewis.com into one of the most admired websites in the business.

He originally came to the attention of online retailers as the multichannel boss of DIY giant B&Q – a role that his predecessor Robinson has recently filled on an interim basis – but it is his two-and-half-year tenure at the department store business that has cemented his status.

During that time Brown, who had sales accountability for John Lewis’s online operation, has overseen a sales rise from £390m to £680m. Online sales accounted for more than 20% of John Lewis’s overall sales in its last financial year.

M and M Direct, which specialises in discount fashion and sportswear online, will aim to harness Brown’s experience building John Lewis’s fashion business online.

Practicology chief executive Martin Newman says: “He brings relationships with brands. He’s got experience of growing one of the biggest fashion categories online from a standing start. M and M will want to leverage that experience to broaden its range and brand offer.”

John Lewis had such faith in Brown’s operation that it put down a bold marker and said in 2010, at a time when revenue had not even reached £400m, that it would be a £1bn business by 2014. It looks set to meet or even beat that target, thanks in part to Brown.

Brown has launched John Lewis’s mobile site, pushed its click-and- collect offer and opened the site up to overseas customers last year – it now delivers to 33 countries. Such experience should be invaluable to M and M Direct, which has a burgeoning presence in continental Europe.

Brown, who comes from Scotland, has an ecommerce pedigree including stints in a variety of industry sectors. However, the top job at M and M will be a big step up and some observers have questioned whether his experience is a good mesh with the online retailer.

Brown’s CV is peppered with corporate roles. Prior to his three years at B&Q, he was head of e-channels at insurance firm Aviva and previously worked in online marketing for Coca Cola.

One ecommerce expert said that Brown may have difficulty adjusting to the entrepreneurial world of pure-play retail, where many successful players, such as Asos and Boden, still have their founders at the helm. 

One ecommerce veteran said: “It’s a hugely challenging role. Pure-plays have a history of hiring corporate chief executives and from my recollection it almost never works out. It’s a different environment – one that needs an entrepreneur leading it.”

The private equity owner of M and M Direct, TA Associates, was reported to be eyeing an IPO of the etailer in 2010. Although tough trading appears to have led to the idea being shelved in the short term, Brown is likely to have to pick up the plans when conditions improve. The process will be new to the ecommerce boss, who will have to step up to the plate if he is to successfully manage it.

What’s not in doubt, however, is his online prowess and if Brown can replicate what he has done at John Lewis, life will be sweet at M and M. 

Career history

November 2009 to present Head of online selling, John Lewis

January 2007 to November 2009 Director of multichannel, B&Q

Prior roles Head of e-channels, Aviva; head of RACe, RAC; senior European e-marketing manager, Coca Cola