John Lewis Boss to Exit as Retailer Grapples With Turnaround

Sharon White plans to step down as chairman of John Lewis Partnership Plc after struggling to turn around the beleaguered UK department store chain.

(Bloomberg) — Sharon White plans to step down as chairman of John Lewis Partnership Plc after struggling to turn around the beleaguered UK department store chain.

One of Britain’s most prominent Black business leaders, White has been trying to return John Lewis to profitability in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the country’s intense cost-of-living crisis. She attracted criticism earlier this year following reports that John Lewis — famous for being owned by its employees — was considering selling a stake to raise money.

White has asked the board to start looking for a successor, according to a statement on Monday from the company, which also owns upmarket grocer Waitrose. Her first term is officially due to end in early 2025; by stepping down after five years, White’s tenure will be the shortest of any chairman in John Lewis’s history.

John Lewis turned to the former civil servant in 2019. She had a strong reputation in Westminster, holding senior positions at departments including the Treasury before becoming chief executive of telecommunications regulator Ofcom — but had not previously worked in retail. She started the job in 2020, weeks before the UK went into lockdown as Covid spread.

“Having led the partnership through the pandemic and the worst of the cost of living crisis, it is important that there is now a smooth and orderly succession process and handover,” White said in the statement. “The partnership is making progress in its modernisation and transformation with improving results.”

She added that there is “a long road ahead.”

Deputy Chairman Rita Clifton will oversee the appointment of a new chairman and the partnership board will approve the new appointment.

White was forced to push back a crucial turnaround plan by two years, meaning the company won’t hit a goal of £400 million ($487 million) in profits until at least 2027/28. There could also be a setback to her plans for 40% of profits to come from non-retail activities, such as housing, by 2030. 

Last month the partnership reported a first-half loss of £56 million, and Bloomberg News revealed last week that it is looking to raise funds by selling and leasing back a dozen Waitrose stores. White recently said the UK’s high rate of inflation had hit the business “like a hurricane.”

Rival Marks & Spencer Group Plc is finally having some success in its own long-overdue turnaround, adding to the pressure on John Lewis. M&S unexpectedly lifted its outlook in August, predicting profit growth as the high-street retailer gains market share in groceries, clothing and homeware.

Read More: Tables Turn in the £20 Billion Fight for Britain’s Middle Class

Change at the Top

White has also asked John Lewis’ board to review the accountabilities of the chairman’s role as part of the recruitment process. That may mean her successor doesn’t work five days a week as she does, leaving more scope for Chief Executive Officer Nish Kankiwala.

Kankiwala was appointed in March, the first time in its history that the retailer has had a CEO. Reviewing the chairman’s role may see the company transition to a more traditional arrangement with a hands-on CEO overseeing both John Lewis and Waitrose.

Reports surfaced in March that the partnership was thinking about raising at least £1 billion through a minority stake sale so it could invest in better technology, data analysis and the Waitrose supply chain. The potential proposal faced a strong backlash from staff at the employee-owned business.

The BBC reported the news of White stepping down earlier Monday.

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