Eleanor Meets: Pippa Wicks, CEO John Lewis

The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (November 2nd 2022)

"My male counterpart got paid twice as much" - a special interview with the Noon community for #equalpayday and great tips on how to boss it as a woman

It is 9.45am and the doors of Peter Jones are closed to the public, but inside the Partners entrance all is hustle and bustle as staff arrive for work. There is a large display celebrating Diwali and plaque proclaiming: “This is a different kind of business.. one whose success is measured by the happiness of those who work in it and by its good service to the general community.” The words from John Sedan Lewis in 1914 are still pertinent today; John Lewis – a middle class stalwart – is the UK’s largest and longest lived example of co-ownership between workers and management.

Up on the second floor its latest CEO, Pippa Wicks, 60, is posing for pics in front of a Christmas bauble in a green patterned blouse from her new John Lewis own brand collection. Before the snapper has finished she’s already telling me its “flying off the shelves” and how her strategy is to create “the best quality at the price-point and great design.” She is also hot on “personalisation” using “personal shoppers and consultants to help customers try something new, they got me into some biker boots! Fancy!” Enacting her philosophy are a procession of mighty mannequins displaying how the collection’s dresses, coats and sweaters can be styled, an innovation which references her history at Top Shop. “It works,” she beams at me. “I heard a husband saying, ‘You should try that coat on, too, darling, it would suit you!” because he’d seen it out there.” Wicks is seriously hands on, encouraging me to try on a new arrival – a green tweedy jacket (so good I’m going to get it) admire the jewel-coloured cashmere, “flying off the shelves”, and William Morris-style heritage print dresses and shirts “I’m buying one of those for all the women in my life” she announces proudly.

I haven’t been into John Lewis since before the pandemic and it certainly seems more vibrant and chic than I’d remembered; dusty Jonelle navy-blue separates are gone, these days it’s more Whistles or Me&Em than Marks and Spencer. I like it. It’s a welcome change from its drearier former incarnation.

Small, quiet and steely, Wicks’s first job as CEO was to shut eight John Lewis stores, including Birmingham and Aberdeen. She shakes her head when I mention it. “I went to all of them and explained to the partners why the numbers didn’t add up anymore, that the stores weren’t profitable and they had to close. You can do hard things in a compassionate way and in business you can’t do anything if you aren’t making money”. Wicks is adamant that smart business can be right and purposeful “a massive thing I learnt at the Co-op”. Her turn-around, as befits a former management consultant, she began her career at Bain,  is based on a laser-like focus on two customer groups: “Busy Inspiration Seekers, 30-45 year olds, with young families who research online but buy EVERYTHING from nursery goods, to clothes to furniture” – wealthy millennials in other words. And what she calls “Active Service Lovers, who are forty plus and who come to the stores to meet a friend and browse and really value in-store service.” (I would call this lot Queenagers and their consorts, a bit older with more time and just as wealthy). Her next focus is to create “really outstanding restaurants in our stores so customers can spend all day here.”

Surely prosperous middle class families and their parents has always been John Lewis’s target customer? It seems not. “When I arrived each department had a different customer focus, there was no clear strategy,” the possibility of such an anathema makes her green eyes flash under her dark fringe. She has been dubbed the turn-around Queen. What is her superpower. “A mixture of the view from 50,000 feet and close attention to detail” she responds. “I love the customer and making things work better I am obsessive about customer research. Oh and not wasting time on 150 slide presentations. Distil your thinking to a side of A4 – 2 slides max.”

Wicks is heavily customer focussed. “It’s all about targeting and understanding what they want. Every month I go shopping with our customers, we’ll go together to different stores. I’ll watch as they feel fabrics, appreciate design… This customer listening is crucial.” Her gleanings are that with recessionary winds blowing, John Lewis’ staple middle class customers want “consistency, quality and style at a great price.” Her first innovation was AnyDay (a more budget offering) “more affordable quality, it was the UK’s biggest new launch last year and 90% of our customers bought an AnyDay item. They’ll mix and match own labels and other brands such as Barbour or Ralph Lauren.”  She is also moving hard into Financial Services, leveraging the trust John Lewis has. “The average family has 12 different financial products, I’d like to make that easier for them.” Pet insurance, including online consultations with a vet, are a boom area and “I’d like to move into funeral planning.” (She obviously  means her new slogan: All Life’s Moments! –new baby, moving house, everyday, death.) What about the downturn? Even that has a silver lining for upbeat Wicks. Customers are spending more on candles and tablecloths “making entertaining at home special”.  It’s the homeware version of buy a lipstick to cheer yourself up when you can’t afford a dress.

So what of this powerhouse herself, boss of 80,000 ‘partners’ as John Lewis calls its staff (70,000 in stores the rest online)? We meet just before Equal Pay Day – the point in the year beyond which women are essentially working for free because of the gender pay gap. Has she fallen victim to that herself? “Things are getting better for women…” she begins. Then stops. “Actually it’s only once in my career that I’ve experienced that but it was quite late on. I found a piece of paper on the photocopier which revealed that the man I worked with was getting paid TWICE as much as I was for doing the same job.”

Wow, I say. Was she livid? I have visions of her storming into management to demand recompense. She shakes her head. “Oh no, I was very calm. I went to chat to the managers very quietly saying, ‘Is this a misunderstanding?’ You don’t want to be aggressive or assertive or anything, you want to make them a partner, get them on side.”

I am agog. This is a masterclass in how a female leader bosses it. “We need to coach women not to be emotional but calm and rational. I just said calmly “I know I am not earning as much as .. can you help me sort it out?  And it was addressed very quickly. Kind of overnight.”

Does she think women who are assertive lose out? She pauses.  “Unfortunately there are stereotypes. If as women we keep it really fact based, and calm, then people will lead into reacting to you positively… You want to encourage somebody to want to be with you and on your side, to be a partner in sorting it out. It is better to arrive in that collaborative kind of mode. Not to be accusatorial.”

This wisdom is hard won. “When I first started out as an executive, when I was 29 I was the only lady on the executive team for years. Now the majority of the members of my executive team are females, it’s much better.”

How has she got to the top? What are her tips? “It is important to be fresh so I stop work at 6.30pm every night to be with my husband. When my son was young I was always home at 6.30 and we’d make supper, prepare veggies, watch Winnie the Pooh and hang out and then if I needed to, I’d resume working later online. I thought of those two and a half hours as a kind of late lunch hour. I’d also do school drop off so I could talk to the other mums so I didn’t begin before 8am either.Putting limits on my working day made me more efficient, focussed on priorities.” She adds that when her son was at school, “I worked a kind of flexi time where I did a four day week in the holidays then more in term time.”

What does she do to switch off? “I walk, I cook, I love music and go to the concerts and opera. I love a boxset [her latest favourite is Babylon Berlin]. I hang out with family.” (She has a son, stepchildren and five grandchildren.) “I have a very close group of old friends which date back to university and I make sure I schedule holidays 18 months in advance so it doesn’t clash with mine or my husband’s board meetings. We’ve been to Croatia and Norway this year.” I remark they don’t sound like ‘sitting on a sun-lounger holidays’. She laughs. “I’m not very good at doing nothing, I like to walk, see amazing scenery but I also think sleep is very important at this age.” She segues into telling me how all her” partners in the bedding department have just been on special sleep training courses: They are all experts” and then segues into how she works ‘stealth exercise’ – walking to meetings, cycling (she has a folding bike) – into her day to keep fit.

So what shaped her own ambition, I ask. She says that going to a boy’s school for sixth form was a great lesson in how to get on with men, she loved reading Zooology at Oxford,  and that much of her inspiration came from her mum.

“My mother always worked,” Wicks says. “She was a great role model who only stopped being a Justice of the Peace and working in mental health when she was 73, she was forced to retire then or she would have continued.”

Personally she has no intention of stopping anytime soon. “I feel like I am at my peak, that I have lots more to give.”

What of the future of the High Street? With the closure of Debenhams and House of Fraser are department stores on an endangered list? “No I think we’ll become destinations for all the family where you can spend all day. In our new concept store opening in Horsham next year we’re rethinking children’s floors to bring them all together – clothes, toys, soft play a child-friendly restaurant. We’re dialling up stylish kids wear. We want to be the top destination for nursery (we’re already up 6% in a year) and homeware and Christmas.”  Her new Santa’s grottos are already a sell-out.

How does John Lewis keep up its reputation for service when so much business is now online? “Over 70% of our customers use a mix of coming into the stores and researching online before they buy. We are agnostic about platforms.” Are we seeing the death of the high street? “Oh no,” she says. “It will just change. We’ll see more mixed use on the high street, shops, commercial places for offices and more affordable housing, like we are doing above Waitrose stores. But we want John Lewis to be a day-trip destination for all the family.”

I notice that while we’ve been talking she has slipped on her stompy boots and the last sentence of the interview comes as she is already walking out of the door to jump on the tube to her next meeting. Wicks is an uncanny mixture – a calm, warm, laser-focussed whirl-wind. John Lewis is in good hands!

By Eleanor Mills

Eleanor Mills is the Founder of Noon.org.uk a platform for women in midlife

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