Nina Bhatia’s first memories of John Lewis are of the calm of the haberdashery department, trailing after her mother as she bought dressmaking supplies in the 1980s.
Her first weeks as an employee of the department store group, which also owns the Waitrose supermarkets, could not have been more different. She arrived as strategy director just a month before the Covid pandemic kicked off in the UK, forcing the temporary closure of all non-food stores for months on end under government restrictions.
As the head office team switched to working from home during the early days of the pandemic, Bhatia said her first months were “an extraordinary experience, starting a new job with a new team who I had barely met”.
She is one of five women on the seven-strong board, including the chair, Sharon White. They come from a broad range of backgrounds with plenty of experience from outside the tight-knit retail world.
That diversity gives John Lewis a leadership which better represents its staff (who are called partners, because between them they own the company);
Family Married with two daughters, 19 and 21.
Education BA in law, Cambridge; MBA, Harvard business school.
Pay Not disclosed.
Last holiday Last family holiday to New York, much delayed by lockdown; most recent trip to Puglia.
Best advice she has been given “When you are not sure what to do, create high-quality options (so I’ve said yes to things before I knew quite how I would tackle them).”
Biggest career mistake “While I’ve worked on projects in many different countries and studied in the US, I never took the opportunity to live and work in another country.”
Words she overuses “Probably ‘options’ – in much current use with my daughters and my team!”
How she relaxes Travel; tennis (watching more than playing); music
while 80% of UK shopfloor workers are female, most other big retailers are led by white men.
The board’s bold plans include generating 40% of profits from outside retail by 2030 and finding low-cost ways to pump up expansion – for example, teaming up with controversial partners such as food courier group Deliveroo for home grocery deliveries.
Bhatia spent more than 20 years at advisory firm McKinsey and ran British Gas’s home services for several years before leading the launch of parent group Centrica’s Hive smart thermostat. At John Lewis, she is charged with expanding the group’s horizons into home rental and financial services.
Last week, she confirmed plans to build homes for rent on top of Waitrose stores in Ealing and Bromley and at an unused warehouse in Reading.
The pandemic has only accelerated the wider turnaround plan. Thousands of jobs went as 16 loss-making department stores were closed and head office functions were pared back. The group ditched its staff bonus for a year and has brought its supermarkets and department stores closer together – merging head office teams and selling more John Lewis homewares in Waitrose stores.
Bhatia – who is sporting a colourful vintage John Lewis scarf which was a present from her daughters as she gamely poses for photographs – insists the crisis meant she got to see “the best of the partnership”, as the group’s workers pitched in to keep the business trading.
“Everyone leaned in,” she says. “People made changes which would have taken longer and been harder to do in any other organisation.”
There are concerns among industry watchers about the new team’s plans for longer-term change, taking a grande dame of the high street into untested waters at a time when retailing faces numerous challenges. Shouldn’t John Lewis stick to its knitting?
Bhatia counters that investment in keen prices and modern retail practices, such as home delivery and online services, will continue. She sees John Lewis as well placed for a shift to “more thoughtful and cautious” shopping. “We cannot succeed without retail and the amazing trusted brands,” she says.
The non-retail ventures will build on the “love and trust” generated by the retail brands, according to Bhatia, as well as experience from the business’s wider history; it housed workers above some of its stores from the 1880s to the 1960s and provides holiday accommodation for staff today.
“In times like these, fortune will favour those brave and bold,” she says. “We are investing behind our plan and there will be opportunities in the next few years even if the economy continues to be volatile.”
Big, bold steps are written into Bhatia’s history.
Born in Tanzania to parents of Gujarati descent, as a child she left the “mangoes and beaches” of east Africa for the brutalist urban architecture of the Barbican in the heart of London.
Back then, the Barbican estate was “very quiet”, as the theatre it houses was still being built. There was only one supermarket in the new development and it closed at lunchtimes on Saturdays, forcing the family to travel some distance for the weekly shop.
Her father worked in imports and exports and paid for her to attend the nearby City of London girls’ school, where she was one of very few children of colour. But she insists it was “not a hardship”.
“Children are very adaptable and fit in and get on and make friends,” she says. “London was and is an exciting city, even though there were no mangoes.”
She says she did not experience direct racism in her childhood or early career – although she was mistaken for a secretary at McKinsey on more than one occasion – and argues: “If you have a high-quality education and do well, you can access opportunities. Nobody can argue with the grades.” That confidence in her qualifications supported her when she worked as a management consultant – often as the only person of colour and the only woman in the room.
The best thing about her latest role is that “other women in the organisation see the possibilities”, she says. “They see [us] as role models and think they can do things that they felt they couldn’t do before.” She says creating new aspects of the business has only added to the potential opportunities.
There is nevertheless risk in trying new things, she admits. “If you execute poorly it’s not good for the brand. It is our job to execute properly,” she says.
The process of democracy within the partnership, where decisions are put to the vote, has been blamed for blocking progress. Bhatia says it provides a useful filter, “invigorating and improving the quality of what we put in front of customers”.
She says the stability of the staff-owned model and its focus on ethical standards have come into their own during the tough times.
“Like all businesses, we have had to think hard about what we back and where to put our efforts,” Bhatia says.
But she adds: “Debenhams and House of Fraser have closed stores and we are still here, and we are here because of the amazing brands and partners that sit behind that.”