The chair of John Lewis and Waitrose has vowed to protect its partnership status for decades to come despite prospective plans to sell a minority stake in the business.
Dame Sharon White said she would ensure that the UK retailer’s unusual structure, whereby the staff all own the business, would “not only survive, but thrive for another 75 years”.
She said that although the mutual would continue to “evolve and change shape . . . what will remain a constant is our ownership of the business”.
Her remarks come after it emerged that the lossmaking retailer, which owns the eponymous department store chain and sister grocery business Waitrose, was open to bringing in outside investment in return for a minority stake as it grapples with heavy debts and increasing competition from online rivals.
Some industry observers have suggested such a move would be in effect a demutualisation, but sources close to John Lewis’s strategy have denied this.
White said management would discuss any radical proposals with its 74,000 employees “first”.
The company would need to change its constitution and bring its partnership council, a group of about 60 staff, on board if it were to go ahead with a share sale.
“When John Spedan Lewis handed over his business to his employees to create a partnership he described it as a ‘radical experiment’,” White wrote in a post on LinkedIn.
“Seventy-five years on and the experiment continues. As chair, I’m chief trustee of the partnership, responsible for ensuring the partnership model not only survives, but thrives for another 75 years.”
Last week it reported a pre-tax loss, including property writedowns, of £234mn in the year to January 28 compared with a £27mn loss the previous year. Sales fell 2 per cent to £12bn with those at supermarket Waitrose, which accounted for £7bn of the total, down 3 per cent.
It had £1.7bn of total net debt during the year, up from £1.4bn the previous year, but lower than the £2bn in 2020. Borrowings of £350mn are due for repayment in the next two years.
White has been spearheading a turnround of the business since she took over in 2021 and has presided over 16 store closures at John Lewis, and thousands of redundancies.
Last week she said further job cuts were expected but declined to give a number. “We are expecting the [restructuring] to have partner implications,” she said.
The mutual raised its cost-cutting target from £300mn to £900mn by 2026.