JD Sports’ choice of CEO signals a clear break with recent times

If the board of JD Sports wanted the choice of CEO to signal a definitive break with the recent past, then Régis Schultz looks like an ideal choice.

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

“Peter did a fantastic job,” said Andrew Higginson, the former Wm Morrison chairman who was appointed to the same role at JD in July. “His legacy is that the business acts very strongly. But it lacks management infrastructure and needs to be modernised”.

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

Disagreements over governance and the timetable for splitting the executive chairman role into a more conventional board chairman structure led to Cowgill being ousted in a board coup in May.

The appointment of Schultz, who starts in September and plans to move to the Manchester area where JD is based, completes a rapid 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 brain and a long track record.”

Another person who worked with him at Kingfisher said he acted more urgently than other executives who were more likely to think long and hard about big decisions.

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

Schultz was born in the Alsace region on the Franco-German border. His earliest retail experience was working in his mother’s shop in Colmar, but the great passion of his youth was not fashion but tennis; at one point he was among the top 20 amateur players in France.

It brought a sports scholarship in the US, though not a professional career – unlike JD non-executive Bert Hoyt, who played on the ATP tour in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

His first senior role after an MBA at the elite business school at Paris Dauphine University was at drinks conglomerate Pernod-Ricard, but it was during an eight-year spell in various roles at Kingfisher that he rose to prominence.

He returned to France in 2008 but was back in the UK in 2013 as managing director of Darty, an electrical company listed in London despite most of its sales being in France. His three years there, his only experience of running a listed company, ended with its takeover by French retailer Fnac.

“He came into the business when it was not in good shape,” said one person who worked with him at the time, describing him as “demanding and quite direct” but effective.

“He tried to bring a much more entrepreneurial spirit into Darty,” the person added, including better integration of physical and digital operations, which will also be high on the priority list at JD.

Although JD’s digital sales surged during the pandemic, like many other retailers, its e-commerce offering is not considered to be up to the standards of online-only peers or leading “bricks and clicks” operators such as Next.

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

“That would have been a difficult question for whoever took the job,” said a Schultz peer from the Kingfisher days.

But Higginson said Schultz was “low ego” and appeared to have the personal skills and emotional intelligence to keep the company’s “accountants” — many of whom he has already met — motivated and engaged.

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

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

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

Pentland said it welcomed his appointment “and the extensive global experience he brings”, adding that, together with Andy Higginson, it “puts the necessary leadership and governance in place to help take JD into its next chapter”. .

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