John Lewis staff back Dame Sharon White to take retailer forward, but revolt over past year’s performance

·2-min read
John Lewis Partnership chairman Sharon White (John Lewis/PA)  ((John Lewis/PA) )
John Lewis Partnership chairman Sharon White (John Lewis/PA) ((John Lewis/PA) )

John Lewis staff today voted to back Dame Sharon White in a confidence vote in her leadership during a turbulent period on the high street.

But employees of the beloved retailer, which also owns Waitrose, also rejected a motion of confidence in White’s performance last year, which led to the axing of bonuses.

The partnership’s council, a 61-member group of team members across John Lewis and Waitrose elected by the workforce, meet twice a year to look at trading performances and pass a vote of confidence in leadership.

The vote is non-binding, but is a key barometer for the performance of the employee-owned retailer’s boss.

“Every half year, the chairman attends our partnership council to give an update and discuss with councillors the progress of the partnership,” Partnership Council president Chris Earnshaw said. “This is central to how we exercise our democratic principles and ownership of the business.

Earnshaw said the council backed White, but did not mention the details of the results. Staff may vote on a scale of “very strongly agree” to “very strongly disagree” in the vote.

“The council voted in support of the chairman to progress the partnership in relation to its purpose, principles and rules. The council did not support last year’s performance, in which we reported a full year loss and no Partner Bonus.

“The council, chairman and board will continue to work together to ensure the long-term success of the partnership and our employee-owned model.”

The meeting this time comes during a period when the company has come under the spotlight over directions, or potential directions of the business that have attracted criticism.

It was reported in March that plans are being considered to dilute the famous partnership structure amid tough High Street conditions. The Sunday Times article that month said White was “understood to be in the early stages of exploring a plan to change the retailer’s mutual structure so it can try to raise between £1 billion and £2 billion of new investment”.

A company spokesman said at the time the partnership model “will always be the heart of” the business. He added: "We keep under review our future funding needs so we have options to fuel the next stage of our growth plan, but nothing is happening in the short term.

Meanwhile there was disappointment when the company told its around 74,000 partners that they would have to go without a bonus for the second time in three years.

Former Ofcom boss White is in the midst of a turnaround plan to boost sales, trim costs and create new revenue streams, such as building rental flats over some of its shops. She has chaired the group since February 2020.