Business

The election of JD Sports as CEO signals a clear break with the recent past

If the board of JD Sports wanted to signal a definitive break with recent history by electing their chief executive, then Régis Schultz seems an ideal choice.

The Frenchman has run various retail outlets in several countries and stands in stark contrast to Peter Cowgill, the outspoken Lancastrian who has devoted most of his career to growing JD from a relatively small British company into a retail powerhouse.

“Peter has done a great job,” said Andrew Higginson, former chairman of Wm Morrison appointed to the same position at JD in July. “His legacy is that the business is trading very strong. But it lacks the governance infrastructure and needs to be modernized.”

“The challenge is to make the business more professional without stifling the entrepreneurial flair that has served us so well,” he added.

Disagreements over the leadership and timing of splitting the role of chief executive officer into a more conventional chief executive officer structure led to Cowgill be ousted in a board coup in May.

That Schultz’s appointmentwhich will start in September and plans to move to the Manchester area where JD is based, completes a quick overhaul of the top team.

“It’s a good and positive appointment for JD,” said Sir Ian Cheshire, who worked with Schultz at Anglo-French DIY conglomerate Kingfisher in the early 2000s. “He comes with a very sharp mind and a long track record.”

Another person who worked alongside him at Kingfisher said he approaches things with more urgency than other senior executives, who tend to think long and hard about big decisions.

“It was quite common for them to spend time chewing the fat, going through all the permutations and getting everyone on their side,” the person said. “Régis was closer to the Anglo-Saxon approach, he was much more matter-of-fact.”

Schultz was born in Alsace on the German-French border. His earliest retail experience was in his mother’s shop in Colmar, but the great passion of his youth was not fashion but tennis; He was once among the top 20 amateur players in France.

That brought him an athletic scholarship in the US but no professional career – unlike JD non-executive Bert Hoyt, who played on the ATP tour in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

His first senior position after an MBA from the Elite Business School at Paris Dauphine University was at beverage conglomerate Pernod-Ricard, but he rose to prominence during eight years in various roles at Kingfisher.

He returned to France in 2008 but was back in the UK in 2013 as Managing Director of Darty, an electronics company which was listed in London although it made most of its sales in France. His three years there are his only experience running a public company and ended with its takeover by French retailer Fnac.

“He came into the company when it wasn’t in the best shape,” said an employee who had worked with him at the time, describing him as “demanding and fairly direct,” but effective.

“He’s been trying to bring a much more entrepreneurial spirit to Darty,” the person added, including better integration of physical and digital operations, which will also be high on JD’s list of priorities.

Though JD’s digital sales have surged during the pandemic, like many other retailers, its e-commerce offering falls short of the standards of online-only competitors or leading “bricks and clicks” operators like Next.

One of the biggest challenges Schultz will face at JD is adapting to a culture shaped by the well-known workaholic Cowgill, who several people have said has more than 20 direct reports.

“That would have been a sensitive issue for whoever took the job,” said a colleague of Schultz’s from Kingfisher days.

But Higginson said Schultz has a “low ego” and appears to have the personal skills and emotional intelligence to keep the company’s “rainmakers” — many of whom he’s already met — motivated and on his side.

Schultz has extensive experience working for private capital. He was CEO of French furniture retailer BUT when it was owned and run by OpCapita and Goldman Sachs upscale grocery chain Monoprix for the Franco-Algerian tycoon Jean-Charles Naouri.

He joins JD after three years at Abdulla Al-Futtaim’s eponymous conglomerate in Dubai, which holds franchise rights for brands such as Ikea and Marks and Spencer in the Middle East and parts of Asia.

That could help him mend fences with Pentland, JD’s controlling shareholder. Controlled by the billionaire Rubin family, the group supported Cowgill almost to the end.

Pentland said it welcomed his appointment “and the extensive global experience he brings,” adding that alongside Andy Higginson, it “provides the leadership and governance needed to lead JD into its next chapter.”

https://www.ft.com/content/de5edbb3-ea8d-4f8a-b20b-66aa762b96c2 The election of JD Sports as CEO signals a clear break with the recent past

Adam Bradshaw

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