The early contenders to become the next chair of John Lewis include the great-grandson of the department store’s founder, the former boss of WH Smith and the chief executive of the insurer Direct Line.
Patrick Lewis, 53, whose great grandfather created the business in 1864, is the retailer’s finance director, having joined the partnership 25 years ago after a spell working in the health and cosmetics business of Procter & Gamble.
Retail watchers see him as the leading internal candidate to succeed the chairman, Sir Charlie Mayfield, 52, when he steps down next year.
However, for the first time in its history, the retailer is also considering external candidates for its top role. Kate Swann, the former chief executive of WH Smith, who currently leads train station-to-airports retailer SSP Group, as well as the Direct Line boss Paul Geddes, are also understood to be on a longlist of potential candidates that has been drawn up by John Lewis’s headhunting firm, Egon Zehnder.
Swann, 54, is widely credited with the revival of WH Smith, which she ran for a decade between 2003 and 2013, where she more than doubled the share price and turned losses of £135m into profits of more than £100m a year.
There has been a similar tale at SSP, whose brands include Upper Crust and Ritazza, which floated on the stock exchange in 2014 at 210p a share. Its current share price is 676.7p, although her departure this year has been marred by a shareholder revolt over her pay.
Geddes, 49, who is also stepping down this year as the chief executive of Direct Line, led the business’s demerger from Royal Bank of Scotland and floated the insurer on the stock exchange. Its shares have risen by around 80% in the past six years.
John Lewis declined to comment.
The search for a new John Lewis chairman comes at a challenging time for the employee-owned business, with the retailer considering suspending its staff bonus for the first time in 66 years in the wake of the worst Christmas for retailers since the depths of the financial crisis.
Staff will discover the size of their bonus this week and the retail analyst Nick Bubb said: “JLP could still afford to pay a 3% bonus, which would cost circa £45m, but they have softened the partners up for nothing. It’s a very tough call, but on balance I think they will get something – say 2%.”