For the first time in its 94-year-old history, John Lewis Partnership has hired a chief executive in a move to help the business “thrive for another century”.
Nish Kankiwala, who has been a non-executive director at the partnership for the past two years, is the man taking on the mantle.
But is he the right man for the job?
A controversial appointment
Kankiwala’s appointment is a bold move from the Partnership, which has been criticised for the lack of retail leaders amongst its senior team, with some attributing this for its current woes.
White spent her career in the civil service and was chief executive of Ofcom before she joined the Partnership.
Meanwhile, recently departed Pippa Wicks spent most of her career in consultancies as a turnaround specialist before a brief stint as Co-op’s chief operating officer.
Kankiwala, who was most recently chief executive of Hovis, does not fix that problem.
He has spent the majority of his career in FMCG, beginning his career at Unilever before heading up Burger King’s international operations and later becoming the president of Pepsico’s soft drinks business in Europe and Africa.
As revenues continue to decline, its hard to understand why the Partnership has not brought a retailer in to lead its turnaround.
“They need someone at the helm who understands retail,” said Detail Executive Search managing director Paul Meechan, explaining he was flummoxed by the announcement.
“If you’ve got a business that isn’t doing great in retail, you bring in the best retailer you can afford to get it sorted.”
“With the way retail is right now, to bring yet another person at the top of the business to help manage it through quite possible the most difficult retail period makes absolutely no sense to me.”
Another headhunter labelled Kankiwala’s appointment as “bizarre”.
“It feels like a wasted opportunity. It has struggled by not having a retailer at the top and has brought in yet another leader that doesn’t know retail.”
However, the headhunter did concede that unlike White, Kankiwala does come from a commercial background so would be able to look at performance through that lens.
A good cultural fit
The headhunter suggested that Kankiwala may have been brought in because he was a good cultural fit for John Lewis.
It is claimed that Wicks’ sudden departure came due to a culture clash with the turnaround specialist’s management style jarring with the Partnership’s style.
The headhunter says: “The business obviously got its fingers burnt with Pippa [Wicks]. Nish has been working as a non-executive director for the past two years so presumably they are confident that he fits in with the Partnership culture. It feels a case of ‘better the devil you know’.”
What are Kankiwala’s credentials?
JLP Dame Sharon White said that Kankiwala had been brought in to “supercharge” the group’s transformation, having turned around poor performing business during his time at Hovis.
Kankiwala stepped down as chief executive of Hovis last year after eight years at the business, which he originally joined as chairman.
During his tenure he led the Hovis from declining revenues to one of the fastest growing bread brands in the UK. He sold the baker to private equity firm Endless in 2020.
However, the transformation involved a large restructure which included selling off the majority of its milling business to focus on its baking operations.
Such bold decision-making will likely be needed at John Lewis Partnership, which is fighting to secure its future at a time where many of its department store rivals have collapsed or are in distress.
A leadership reshuffle
With Kankiwala’s appointment comes a reshuffle of the John Lewis Partnership leadership team.
Under the new structure, Naomi Simcock – the John Lewis retail director who was promoted to replace Wicks on an interim basis – and six other executive directors will report to Kankiwala, who in turn will report into White.
White said: “The new structure allows me to focus on the preservation of the Partnership model and our distinctive character, on the strategy for the Partnership and our big commercial choices.”
However, Meechan points out that unless White, who has been the figurehand and spokesperson for the partnership since her appointment, is taking a step back completely to be a figurehead chair, Kankiwala “can’t be a CEO”.
“That’s not a chief executive, that’s an executive chairman and the managing director.”
It’s fair to say that Kankiwala’s appointment has raised a few eyebrows. He certainly has a lot to prove as the partnership’s first ever chief executive.
However, if he’s successful in rebuilding John Lewis Partnership, he will also build a formidable legacy of his own.
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