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Sunday, May 26, 2024
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HomeCulture WarJohn Lewis bids farewell to Dame Sharon 'Empty-Shelves' White

John Lewis bids farewell to Dame Sharon ‘Empty-Shelves’ White

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TCW readers will no doubt be deeply saddened by the news that the chairperson of the John Lewis Partnership, Dame Sharon White, has announced that she will be leaving the employee-owned company in February 2025 at the end of her first five-year term, if not earlier. This will make Dame Sharon the shortest-serving chair in the company’s history. Her two immediate predecessors held the post for 13 years and 14 years. Unkind voices have suggested that her time at John Lewis has not been the greatest success.

Some eyebrows were raised when Dame Sharon was appointed. For a start, she enjoyed a startling increase in salary when she moved from being the head of Ofcom, where she reportedly was paid around £341,700, to pocketing about £990,000 a year at the John Lewis Partnership. Another concern was that Dame Sharon seemed to have no experience running a retail business – or indeed any business. All her previous work was in the public sector – the Treasury, the British Embassy in Washington, the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Justice and, of course, Ofcom – all jobs where one is given generous amounts of money extracted from taxpayers. But in a retail business like John Lewis, you have to provide goods and services that customers want at a price they are willing to pay, and that is perhaps slightly more challenging than life in the British civil service.

To be fair to Dame Sharon, taking over at John Lewis in February 2020 was a bit of a ‘hospital pass’. At a time when shopping was increasingly moving online, Dame Sharon’s predecessors had greatly expanded the number of the group’s bricks-and-mortar outlets. Since the year 2000, John Lewis stores doubled from 25 to 50 and Waitrose branches almost tripled from 126 to 336. The number of employees – ‘partners’ – shot up from 24,000 to 60,000, massively increasing payroll costs and eating away at profits. Then came the pandemic lockdowns followed by the cost-of-living crisis. In the last financial year the partnership lost £234million and the partners’ bonus was cancelled for only the second time since 1953. However some of the partnership’s problems were self-inflicted. For example, a multi-million-pound computer upgrade at Waitrose caused much-publicised problems with stock availability, leading to crueller tongues nicknaming the boss Dame Sharon ‘Empty-Shelves’ White. 

Dame Sharon proposed several ideas for turning round the business. One was to reduce the partners’ stake in the company by bringing in outside investors. This appears to have been abandoned following furious protests from partners’ representatives. Another strategy was reportedly to move into property with the aim of generating 40 per cent of the business’s profits from building up to 10,000 buy-to-let properties – quite a far cry from the partnership’s traditional skills in retailing. And faced with competition such as Amazon, the company binned its price-match promise – ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ – as it was costing too much money.

Only a couple of weeks ago Dame Sharon told the partners that ‘there is a long road ahead’ and assured journalists that ‘the senior management team were buckled in for the bumpy journey’. Now she has undone her buckle and decided to leave long before her planned business turnaround plan has been completed. 

There will be many opinions about Dame Sharon’s brief tenure at the top of the John Lewis Partnership. Perhaps in a time of economic stability she might have successfully cruised along without any serious doubts being cast on her capabilities and fitness for the job. But with her lack of hard-nosed retail experience and limited exposure to running a real business with real paying customers, she may have been the wrong person at the wrong time. As the trade magazine The Grocer wrote after her resignation announcement: ‘Sharon White should never have been appointed John Lewis chairman.’ 

For the sake of John Lewis’s tens of thousands of partners, let us hope that Dame Sharon’s successor is better suited to running a retail business in challenging times. As for Dame Sharon, being an establishment insider she will no doubt fall upwards and soon reappear, perhaps in another exalted position in our failing civil service paid for by us taxpayers.

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David Craig
David Craig
David Craig's latest book THERE IS NO CLIMATE CRISIS is available as a paperback or ebook from Amazon

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