John Lewis must find his “soul” to survive, says Mary Portas | Mary Portas
Mary Portas, one of Britain’s leading retail consultants, said the John Lewis Group faced a battle to find its soul, amid its potential decision to welcome outside ownership.
Portas, who has advised David Cameron’s coalition government on the future of high streets, sent an open letter to the group’s chairwoman, Sharon White, and Nish Kankiwala, who joins the group’s first chief executive, the urging not to lose sight of its values and position as a British institution.
She referred to recent financial problems at John Lewis and the Waitrose supermarket and White’s attempt to consolidate and rebuild the retailer.
“What worries me is that you might think your fight is purely financial. It’s not.
“The ongoing battle is much more nuanced. This is what constitutes the soul of your brand. The intangibles, the shared beliefs, the beautiful things that can’t be captured in financial projections but earn a little space in people’s hearts.
“Somehow in the last few years you’ve let go of the soul. We have all felt the subtle but powerful erasure of what John Lewis is, a break from what has always distinguished your company.
The retail group is 100% employee-owned, but White is considering a plan to change its current ownership structure to raise between £1bn and £2bn in outside investment.
The company would only consider selling a minority stake – with a focus on maintaining its employee ownership, where staff are known as “partners” and hold a stake in the company.
In its latest financial results, the group lost £234m. Sales fell 3% at Waitrose, with flatter sales in the department store branch offsetting the decline. White warned that the workforce would have to be reduced and apologized for cutting his annual bonus for staff. The last time he was unpaid was in 1953.
Portas began her retail career with a Saturday job at John Lewis and later became a member of Harvey Nichols’ board of directors, leaving to set up her own consulting firm. She went on to present retail programs for the BBC and Channel 4 including Mary Queen of Shops.
She was commissioned by Cameron to write an independent review on the future of High Street in 2011.
In the letter, sent on Thursday, she also criticized Waitrose’s halt to deals for free newspapers with purchases over £10 and free coffee, a move that shop bosses reversed.
“Your ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ pledge? Gone too. Really? In an age when good decent value and integrity couldn’t be [more] important? Your new slogan “For all the moments of life” is not a commitment. I don’t really know what it is, ”she adds. The 62-year-old mentions Laura Ashley and Woolworths as British staples that have gone bust over the past two decades.
In a response to Portas’ letter, White said: ‘It is the greatest privilege of my life to be guardian of the partnership. I am here to ensure that it not only survives, but thrives for generations.
“I love our brands. Their strength does not come from the fact that we are a partnership. It is because we are a partnership. Our partners who own the business are our greatest asset and our ownership of the partnership will remain,
“I will not rest until the partnership is back to full health.”