John Lewis staff to quiz departing boss Dame Sharon White

John Lewis staff to quiz departing boss Dame Sharon White

Long goodbye: Sharon White, who axed the chain’s ‘never knowingly undersold’ policy, wants to stay on until 2025

John Lewis staff this week will get their first chance to quiz Dame Sharon White about her shock resignation from her role chairing the employee-owned retailer.

They will want to know more about why White is standing down after just five years – making her the shortest-serving boss in the near-100 years since the partnership was incorporated – and what that means for her controversial turnaround plan.

Her bombshell announcement caused ‘a lot of reflection and sadness’ on the shopfloor, according to an insider.

It came just weeks after she admitted it would now take longer to return the business, which also includes the Waitrose grocery chain, to a sustainable profit.

White, a former civil servant and regulator with no retail experience, has tried to move the partnership into new areas such as property and financial services.

She has also shut underperforming department stores, cut head office jobs and reduced debt.

Losses are narrowing, but John Lewis is still reeling from the impact of inflation – which in White’s word hit ‘like a hurricane’ – and the shift to online shopping.

Staff bonuses have been canned in two out of the past three years.

Her strategy – and a decision to axe John Lewis’s famous ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ price guarantee – has come in for strong criticism. In May, the partnership’s powerful ruling council voted against her management of the business but then backed her future plans.

‘She lost the dressing room,’ said retail veteran Richard Hyman.

Another vote of confidence in White and her strategy is not expected at this Wednesday’s council meeting.

But White, who earned £1 million a year, faces questions about her plans for a long goodbye.

She recently appointed brand expert Nish Kankiwala as the partnership’s first chief executive and her official stance is that she will stay on until February 2025 while a successor is found – an idea slammed as ‘inconceivable’ and ‘unacceptable’ by Hyman.

Attracting a replacement is going to be no easy task, he says. As a mutual, John Lewis cannot offer lucrative share options to lure in high-flying executives.

It is also seen as impregnable to predators because of its partnership structure.

One option is to downgrade the role of chairman to a part-time position – in line with best corporate practice – but that has its drawbacks.

‘What the John Lewis Partnership needs is a retail veteran who has very solid experience in the sector, preferably, with an element of turning businesses around,’ said Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at consultancy GlobalData.

Downgrading the role ‘will limit their options’, he added.

Unusually, the John Lewis chairman is also responsible for the commercial performance of the business.

Saunders said: ‘It is not really a part-time role.

‘Sadly there is a lot of muddled thinking in terms of how the business should be structured and what the role of the chairman is.

‘It is not putting them in a position for success.’

Experts say that whoever is chosen to lead the business needs to ditch White’s diversification plans and get back to basics.

‘The key issues are retail – and so are the solutions,’ said Hyman. ‘They’ve got to trade their way out so the partners can get their bonus back.’