Listen to this article
It is early morning in John Lewis’s Oxford Street store and the warm glow of the midwinter sun is pouring through the huge windows of the fifth-floor restaurant and straight on to Charlie Mayfield’s back, framing him in an ethereal light.
Just two days earlier he was suddenly anointed as John Lewis Partnership’s next chairman after Sir Stuart Hampson’s retirement next March leaked in the weekend press.
The sudden change of agenda creates a bit of a conundrum for Mr Mayfield on this bright Tuesday morning, as he had agreed to talk to the Financial Times two weeks earlier on the theme of Christmas shopping.
But now the seasonal shopping trends seem overshadowed by the bigger scheme of things. Next March, Mr Mayfield, who turns 40 on Christmas Day, will become the partnership’s fifth chairman. He will be the partnership’s youngest-ever chairman and the shortest-serving employee ever to wear the coveted crown.
He is reluctant to answer the key questions about his vision, what he will do to mark his tenure as chairman, and – critically – who he will choose to run the 26-strong department store chain. He smiles, slightly uncomfortably, a half-eaten pastry sitting on his plate. “I am not going to comment.
“The news has only just come out and the most important thing is that people focus on Christmas and trade, and people in the partnership don’t get too distracted on what may or may not happen.”
There are 65,000 John Lewis employees – who are all also stakeholders in the business – who cannot help but be distracted by an overhaul of the top management team.
In the short-term, Mr Mayfield must finish a half-hatched succession plan. Early in the new year, he needs to choose his deputy chairman – Alistair McKay steps down in February – and select a new managing director for John Lewis.
“Clearly we have important decisions around my own succession and knock-on moves in the business and then we will get back to talking about my agenda in due course.”
Andy Street, head of personnel and board member, has been tipped as a possible successor, as has Gareth Thomas, retail director of the stores. Mr Mayfield is inscrutable on the matter, although he does admit that both appointments will come from internal candidates. He will have to be quick – he has only until March to ready himself for the new job.
Then there is the potential fall-out from the jostling for the powerful positions.
There is a risk that Mark Price, the partnership’s ambitious development director, who succeeded Mr Mayfield in that job, may decide to leave after missing out on the top job. He remains, however, a strong contender as managing director.
One insider argues that the “entrepreneurial” Mr Price will be content to remain deeply involved in the day-to-day running of the stores.
Mr Mayfield’s appointment may have been abrupt but the choice was not a surprise. A former army captain and management consultant – Sir Stuart joined the partnership from the civil service – he was made for John Lewis.
“Charlie will ensure that the partnership stays faithful to its traditions,” says one observer. “He is as similar to Sir Stuart as you could be without biological cloning.”
Both characters are very conservative, extremely polite and measured. Mr Mayfield is the epitome of guarded courtesy. When asked what his favourite part of the store is, he says it’s the duvet department.
The only time he displays any strong emotion is at the suggestion that the revamped clothing division is still a weak point in the John Lewis line-up.
“That is unfair,” he exclaims, looking almost cross. “We sell more handbags than any other retailer in the UK, we have a wider assortment than anyone. I’ll get you the figures – this season clothing is up 5 per cent and against the market that is exceptionally good.”
Mr Mayfield’s demeanour also masks some business daring. It was he who spearheaded the partnership’s internet strategy in early 2000, negotiating the purchase of Buy.com UK to add to the John Lewis Direct business, while also convincing the board that taking a 40 per cent stake in Ocado – now down to 30 per cent – was a good idea.
“Even at that early stage you could tell that a disproportionate number of our customers were going to shop online, so it was clear there was an opportunity for us,” he says.
Six years later, John Lewis Direct is profitable although the partnership will not say how much it makes. Ocado, after a £69m net investment from the partnership, is still losing money but expects to become profitable – on an earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation basis – in 2007. In the year to November 27 2005, it reported a pre-tax loss of £45m.
Mr Mayfield says he is not fazed by these losses. “Ocado needs to become profitable and they are focused on that,” he says, considering his words carefully. “I don’t think Ocado will fail.”
However, how he handles Ocado will be a key element of his chairmanship. Another challenge will be how he grows the John Lewis brand, which he thinks could work overseas.
“There has been this great expansion from the brand [over the past three years] and we have been encouraged by the response. John Lewis washing machines have been huge.”
Mr Mayfield starts the job with the comfort of two bumper years for the department store chain behind him, but the question remains whether that is a long enough record to have proved himself on.
“Put it this way, it is certainly long enough to mess things up,” he counters. “We are a long-term business. One of the reasons we are doing well at the moment is that we have a long-term strategy that we have consistently implemented, year in, year out.”
With that, he is out of the chair, and down on to the shop floor, back to thinking about his old job. “Have I shown you the flat-screen TV?” he says, referring to what is probably the most expensive flat-screen television in history – it retails at £50,000, and, no, they haven’t sold one yet. He heads towards the ground floor beauty hall. “Have we run out of time?”
Get alerts on Travel & leisure industry when a new story is published