John Lewis Partnership’s latest executive hire will be a new name to many. Nina Bhatia will join on February 17 as executive director, strategy and commercial development, following a career spent largely in consultancy and the energy sector.
Her appointment will I’m sure spark lively debate. Many will legitimately point to Bhatia’s lack of direct retail experience as evidence of the huge gamble being taken by JLP, whose new chair, Dame Sharon White, is also a newcomer to the sector.
Her appointment also reinforces a point I’ve made previously about a lack of Waitrose representation on the leadership team. The grocery trade, perhaps more than any other area of retail, can take many years to learn. Marginal like-for-like sales growth at Waitrose salvaged an otherwise poor overall performance during the Christmas period and now is not the time for the newly integrated executive team to be taking their eyes off the ball, not least with Waitrose’s Ocado contract soon to expire.
Yet there’s a counter-argument to be made: that Bhatia’s track record marks her out as the kind of disruptive thinker JLP needs as it seeks to escape from its current malaise of shrinking revenues and wafer-thin profits.
Bhatia is a high academic achiever, boasting a double-first degree in law from Cambridge University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
On graduating, she spent the best part of two decades working in consultancy for McKinsey & Co., advising businesses in the consumer, energy, healthcare and public sectors.
So far, so conventional. But it’s Bhatia’s career at British Gas owner Centrica that marked her out as a determined individual with an intriguing strategic mind. People with a strong consultancy background can sometimes find it hard to adapt to an environment where they have ultimate responsibility for operational performance. Yet Bhatia proved at Centrica that not only is she is comfortable in the role of decision-maker, she is also prepared to challenge conventional thinking.
Most importantly she delivered results; conceiving and developing Hive, the smart home brand that stretched British Gas beyond its core business in utilities and white goods to compete with the likes of Amazon and Google in the tech space.
Fresh from announcing the strategic integration of the Waitrose and John Lewis brands, JLP is looking for its own game-changing innovation. Incremental improvements in operational and trading performance will help but to really position itself for long-term, sustainable growth JLP will need to offer customers products and services they can’t get anywhere else.
In the minds of many, Bhatia will start her JLP career with a point to prove, much as she did at Centrica. But the rules of retail are being redrawn. It’s a reflection of the enduring appeal of the sector, and its household name brands, that high-achievers like White and Bhatia want to come and test themselves in the industry, despite the challenges many businesses face.
Sometimes the right candidate is not the most obvious candidate. Time will tell whether a dose of disruptive thinking is the tonic that JLP needs.