John Lewis has appointed the chief executive of Ofcom as its new chairman, on a near-£1m salary,
Sharon White, 52, joined Ofcom in March 2015 from the Treasury, where she was a senior civil servant in charge of public finances. She is now moving to one of the most high-profile jobs in British retail, overseeing the John Lewis department stores and the Waitrose supermarket chain at a time when traditional department stores are being squeezed by the move to online shopping and the supermarkets are losing business to discount operators.
White is an economist by training and has worked at the World Bank and British Embassy in Washington and in Tony Blair’s policy unit at 10 Downing Street. She was the first black person to be a permanent secretary at the Treasury.
Until Thursday’s announcement she was seen as a leading contender to become the next governor of the Bank of England.
Sir Charlie Mayfield, the outgoing chairman of John Lewis Partnership, said: “Sharon White has had a stellar career in a number of senior strategic and executive roles and during a thorough, wide-ranging and extremely competitive search she stood out as an exceptional candidate. I believe she has the vision, leadership, drive and flair to steer the partnership through its next phase.”
Mayfield said he recognised that White was not “the conventional retail choice” but he added: “These are not conventional retail times, nor is the partnership a conventional company.” John Lewis is owned by its staff, who are partners, and they all receive the same percentage bonus each year, from the chairman to the Saturday shelf-stackers.
He said White, who will be paid £990,000 a year, was “ an inspirational leader with the personal and professional skills to ensure the partnership continues to innovate and change”.
White said: “I am a passionate believer in the partnership: partners working together for each other’s wellbeing, with the confidence to invest for the long-term and a focus on delivering for our customers in a rapidly changing retail environment.”
She said the department stores and Waitrose chain were “not merely British retail icons but also a model of a better way to do business”.
The John Lewis group has been having a difficult time in recent years. In March it revealed profits were down 45% at £160m and it slashed its staff bonus to the lowest level in 66 years. Staff received only 3% of their salary as an annual bonus, down from 17% in 2013.
The department stores have been hit by the group’s famous “never knowingly undersold” price promise, which forces the store chain to match the prices of branded goods available elsewhere. Beleaguered rivals, including Debehams, have resorted to regular discounting in a bid to stave off collapse and John Lewis has had to match those prices.
Waitrose, which once had ambitions to win 10% of the grocery market, has had its wings clipped by the defection of customers from all income bands to discounters such as Aldi and Lidl
White oversaw Ofcom during a period of transition for the broadcast regulator, which has a remit that covers everything from home broadband packages to mobile phone networks and public complaints about television and radio content.
Under her watch the regulator oversaw the torturous process that resulted in Rupert Murdoch’s sale of Sky, helped oversee the separation of BT’s Openreach broadband operation from its main business and became the first external regulator of the BBC.
White’s Ofcom was often willing to intervene on behalf of consumers in pricing disputes, she also had to deal with the growing influence of social networking sites and streaming video services such as Netflix, which fall outside the regulator’s remit.
There were also political disputes, such as the long-running investigation into the Kremlin-funded RT channel, which prompted attacks on the regulator from the Russian government.
She leaves at a time when Ofcom is pitching to play a greater role in the regulation of internet, with the government considering how best to minimise online harms. As a result, her replacement could have a major role in shaping how the British online world is controlled.
“It’s been a huge privilege to lead Ofcom at a time when reliable, affordable communications have become essential,” White said. “I will leave behind an organisation that is dedicated in its mission to make communications work for everyone.”