'Bit of a social club' | John Lewis culture overhaul predicted as new Chairman announced

John Lewis culture overhaul predicted as new Chairman announced

A company culture overhaul could soon be underway at John Lewis Partnership following the announcement of its new chairman - according to a prominent business leader.

The partnership, which owns John Lewis and Waitrose stores, has appointed former Tesco executive Jason Tarry as its next chairman, following Sharon White's decision to step down from the retailer.

Tarry, who has 33 years of retail experience at Tesco including six as the supermarket's UK & Ireland boss, will take up the role in September, John Lewis said.

Tarry said it was a "great privilege" to succeed White as the seventh chairman of the employee-owned company.

Senior figures at John Lewis have expressed their confidence that Tarry will uphold the brand’s values, although colleagues have now been warned that big changes to the company’s culture could be afoot when Tarry takes charge.

Speaking in The Guardian, Clive Black, a director at investment firm Shore Capital who has known Tarry for many years, said: “...He’ll bring a fantastic grounded, balanced sense of retail leadership within the context of an immense programme of experience at Tesco.”

But Black warned that the company “probably needs an improvement in its business culture.”

He added: “It’s arguably been a bit of a social club for too long. It’s one thing being a nice place to work and another being a place where there’s a sense of entitlement, which isn’t very healthy.”

The outgoing-chair Dame Sharon White had faced increasing scrutiny in the past few years before announcing she would step down last October. In May 2023, she survived a vote of no confidence amid considerations to alter the company’s long-standing employee ownership model.

The company’s partnership council, consisting of 61 staff members, voted in the business' biannual meeting on whether they have confidence in the chair’s decisions in the past year, which she lost.

They also voted on whether they had confidence in her leading the business going forward – for this vote, White won a majority.

The outcome of these votes, neither of which were enforceable, indicated the uncertain internal state of the company which revealed losses of £234m earlier in the year. It also indicated a level of employee dissatisfaction following a year of losses and no staff bonuses.

White's tenure is remarkable for two main reasons - she was the retailer's first female chairman but, in deciding not to seek a second term of office, her tenure also became the shortest in the firm's more than 100-year history.

Speaking after the announcement of his impending appointment, Tarry himself spoke highly of the company’s ethos, in addition to praising the beleaguered Dame Sharon.

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“The Partnership and its brands stand for trust, value, quality and service and it’s a great privilege to be succeeding Sharon as the seventh Chairman,” he said. 

“The Partnership is unique and I’ve long been an admirer of the employee-ownership model, its values and Partner-led customer service. This starts with a sharp focus on being brilliant retailers for customers and investing in growth. I’m looking forward to working with the Board, Nish and the Executive Team to deliver its clear strategy.” 

Rita Clifton, Deputy Chairman and Chair of the Nomination Committee, said: “...we are confident that Jason will provide the kind of inspirational leadership, a proven track record in multi-channel, multi-category retail success and a strong identification with Partnership values that we are seeking in this role. Jason has impressed everyone throughout the interview process with his warmth, his belief in the Partnership’s ideals and democratic principles and his appreciation for our unique and special brands.” 

Sharon White, Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, said: “I’m delighted to be handing over to Jason, who has a combination of fantastic retail experience with leadership through transformation. From my many conversations with Jason, he has demonstrated a clear appreciation for the Partnership model and champions it. I look forward to welcoming him to the Partnership in September and carrying out a smooth handover.”

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