Sharon White: the economist shaking up John Lewis

Dame Sharon White had no experience of retail when she took the top job at the nation’s favourite department store. Can she turn around an ailing industry?

When Dame Sharon White became chair of the John Lewis Partnership at the start of the year, she signalled her determination to be radical. The onslaught of Covid-19 has turbocharged that ambition, says The Daily Telegraph. Last month, White announced plans to shut a supposedly flagship store in the centre of Birmingham – a shocking but textbook response to predictions that up to 70% of department-store sales could be conducted online, even after the threat of the virus has passed. Now we learn that her strategic review will go much further. White’s plan to save the retailer includes ramping up its financial-services business, a move into horticulture and plans to turn some stores into affordable housing. Talk about “bringing down the curtain on the golden age of the department store”.  

An industry rookie takes the helm

Given her CV – which takes in the World Bank, the British Embassy in Washington, the Treasury and Number 10’s policy unit, and Ofcom – White, 52, seemed an unusual choice to lead the nation’s favourite department store. Some wondered whether “an industry rookie” could cut it in the rough and tumble world of retail, says The Times. All the more so since her arrival at John Lewis coincided with an internecine conflict among the group’s top brass: “a botched restructuring” under her predecessor Sir Charlie Mayfield “bequeathed White a business bereft of experienced leadership”.

It is said that some staff “wept with joy” when her appointment was announced, notes the Chartered Management Institute: one in six of the group’s staff are of ethnic-minority heritage – a statistic hitherto not reflected in its top echelons. Certainly, White’s background marked a departure from the “white, privately educated men” who had traditionally led the group. The daughter of Windrush-generation Jamaican immigrants, White was born and raised in Leyton, east London. Her father worked for British Rail and her mother was a machinist. White was fortunate in her education at an all-girl comprehensive clearly prepared to push pupils to their full potential – in the mid-1980s, she made it to Cambridge to study economics and joined the civil service in 1989.

Results with no ruffled feathers

White made her mark in government circles with a down-to-earth, approachable style – gaining a winning reputation as someone “extremely good at her job, but fun”, says The Guardian. The Tory grandee Ken Clarke described her as one of the brightest people he’d ever worked with. In the mid-1990s, she quit the UK Treasury for Washington with her husband, fellow economist Robert Chote, later returning to resume a swift ascent in Whitehall. In 2011, White led the review of the Treasury’s response to the financial crisis, says the Financial Times. Two years later she became the second woman – “and the first black person – to be appointed as a permanent secretary at the Treasury”, reflecting a big shift in an institution, which, as she remarked, was seen as having “quite a macho culture”. 

White’s ability to get results without unduly ruffling feathers was to the fore at Ofcom, where she took on “big interests”, ranging from the Murdoch dynasty to the Russian government. The challenge at John Lewis is very different. In the battle for survival, “there is a risk that the partnership’s love of democracy” and management by committee “will slow it down” at a time when speed and decisive leadership is vital, says The Times. White has shown she can be tough when necessary, but doubtless her cajoling charm will come in handy. 

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