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John Lewis boss rapped over losses but survives employee confidence vote

The chairman of the John Lewis Partnership (JLP) insisted the retail company would always be owned by its staff – “no ifs, no buts” – as employees backed her in a vote of confidence.

Dame Sharon White ruled out selling a stake in the business, which owns John Lewis department stores and Waitrose supermarkets, but said that the board could consider external investment in future if it was needed.

She made the commitment before she won the vote of confidence in her leadership following reports that JLP was considering a change to its employee-owned structure after more than 70 years. The suggestion sparked a backlash from staff, who currently fully own the retailer.

JLP has suffered in the past year as it struggles to compete with high street rivals. It reported a £234m loss for 2022, scrapped employee bonuses and warned of job cuts. Last month, the new JLP chief executive, Nish Kankiwala, warned that the business “was not producing sufficient profit”.

The retailer also ditched its “never knowingly undersold” price match promise after nearly a century, saying it had lost relevance at a time when it faces fierce competition from online retailers such as Amazon.

Speaking before the JLP partnership council held its biannual vote on the company’s performance and leadership on Wednesday, Dame Sharon said: “I want to be absolutely categorical – the John Lewis Partnership will always be an employee-owned business, no ifs no buts. There is absolutely no question of demutualisation.

“Our model is the reason I joined the partnership as I believe in a form of kinder capitalism in the 21st century which demonstrates our ability to combine commercial excellence with social purpose. It’s what makes us special.”

She said efficiency savings of £900m meant the group was on a “clear and secure path back to profitability” but went on to add that “if at any point the partnership couldn’t fund their plans through their own means, the board could consider external investment”, but she stressed any such move would need to meet the legal requirements of the partnership’s original trust settlement.

As well as each owning a stake in the business, John Lewis and Waitrose staff – referred to by the parent company as partners – have a say in the way that it is run and receive a share of its profits.

The partnership council is a body of 61 employees, elected by JLP’s 70,000-plus staff, whose role includes holding the chairman and management team to account.

The council voted to back the leadership team but issued a rebuke to it by voting against JLP’s financial performance.

“The council did not support last year’s performance, in which we reported a full-year loss and no partner bonus,” said Chris Earnshaw, the council president. “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 council’s votes are symbolic rather than binding.

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