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Mary Portas warns John Lewis it has ‘let go of the soul’ in open letter
27 March 2023

Retail consultant and broadcaster Mary Portas has sent an open letter to department store John Lewis warning that it has “let go of the soul”.

Portas published the letter on LinkedIn following the news John Lewis was considering ending its employee-owned business structure in order to attract investment.

The sale of a minority stake could require a change to the John Lewis constitution, which would have to be voted on by its partnership council, a group of about 60 staff. Any money raised through selling shares would go into the business, rather than the pockets of staff.

Chairwoman Dame Sharon White recently apologised to staff that they would not receive a bonus payment following a “tough set of results”.

The potential strategy change follows the recent appointment of turnaround expert Nish Kankiwala as CEO - the first time in history that the retailer has appointed someone to this role.

In her open letter, addressed to Chairwoman Sharon White and recently appointed CEO Nish Kankiwala, writing: “You are not simply chair and chief exec. You are custodians of one of the most valued, loved and trusted retail brands this country has. John Lewis and Waitrose are part of the fabric of everyday British life.”

She also warned John Lewis risks losing its appeal to younger generations as well as its established demographic.

Portas added: “At a time when we crave the constancy and comfort of brands we can actually trust, you’ve been chasing the new. But here’s the thing: that’s not what we really want from John Lewis. And here’s the other thing: that’s not what younger generations want from you either.”

She ended the letter by saying that failure for John Lewis and Waitrose “is not an option”.

The John Lewis Partnership is the UK’s largest employee-owned business with its retail brands – John Lewis and Waitrose – owned in trust by its 80,000 partners. It has 34 John Lewis shops plus one outlet and 332 Waitrose shops across the UK, along with its retail websites.

Portas later posted a reply from White, who said that being John Lewis chairman is “the biggest privilege of [her] life”.

“We want our brands to continue to grow,” she wrote. “We’ve always been open to new partnerships with investors or like-minded companies to share in our growth. I will not rest until the partnership is restored to full health.”

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