Sharon Lewis steps down as John Lewis chair as retailer’s troubles continue

The retailer has cut its half-year losses to £57.3m but Dame Sharon drew harsh criticism over a proposal to sell a minority stake in the partnership

The chair of employee-owned John Lewis Partnership, Sharon White, is stepping down at the end of her first five-year term and asked the board to start looking for a successor.

Today’s announcement, which makes her the shortest-serving chair of the business, follows continued troubles for the retailer, which last month reported pre-tax half-year losses of £57.3m.

The partnership – which owns the John Lewis department stores and Waitrose grocery chain – said the results offered positive signs, and were a 41% improvement on the £99m loss reported for the same period a year earlier.

But it said it would have to extend its turnaround plan by two years because of “inflationary pressures”. Launched in 2020, the plan aims to offer value to customers, invest in digital and expand online groceries; its initial goal was a £400m profit by 2025/26, but this has now been deferred to 2027/28.

Dame Sharon, the first woman to chair John Lewis, drew flak earlier this year after the partnership considered selling a minority take to outside investors to raise cash, compromising its employee-owned structure.

Dame Sharon White

The criticism continued as news of her departure broke, with Stephen Jones writing in the The Grocer: “There will likely be many privately breathing a sigh of relief as White’s spell in charge has proved a tumultuous period for the bellwether retailer, one that’s been defined by falling margins, and pitifully few payouts of the hallowed partnership bonus.”

Jones added that the retailer’s problems pre-dated Dame Sharon’s appointment, but added: “The business needed a hard-nosed, customer-focused retail chair, not a career civil servant making her first foray into retail.

“However impressive her CV, White was just not the person qualified to take over one of, if not the most uniquely structured, and highly revered retail businesses in Britain.”

And Neil Sanders, managing director and retail analyst at GlobalData Retail, wrote on LinkedIn that Dame Sharon was not the cause of all the retailer’s problems, but had made two errors: “The first was to set targets for generating profit outside of retail. This showed a lack of confidence in the core business and diverted too much attention from the problems in day-to-day operations… The second was to float the possibility of getting outside investment. Aside from being against the company’s founding principles, this severely undermined her standing with partners and led to an enormous backlash from which Dame Sharon never really recovered.

“It is hard for anyone to lead an organisation during troubled times if they don’t have the confidence of those below them.”

But Ben Marlow, chief city correspondent for the Telegraph, wrote that the business’s problems were more deep-rooted, and the appointment of Nish Kankiwala as CEO in March, was a sign that “retail and turnaround expertise was needed”. 

He added that Dame Sharon, who has “blazed a trail for Black women in British business”, ”would be entitled to feel unfairly maligned and hurt by some of the personal criticism and abuse she has received while taking on numerous tough challenges: the pandemic, inflation, rapidly rising interest rates.”

Announcing her decision, Dame Sharon said: “The chair of the John Lewis Partnership is a special and unique role in UK business. The chair is responsible for the long-term health of the partnership’s model – commercial success twinned with a commitment to first rate customer service and action in our communities.

“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.

“The partnership is making progress in its modernisation and transformation with improving results. There is a long road ahead and I am committed to handing on the strongest possible partnership to my successor.”