In her 14 years at John Lewis Partnership, Berangere Michel has worked as much outside of finance as she has within it.
She worked as director of supply chain development for four years, and later worked as operations director, then executive, director, customer service, before becoming executive director, finance (CFO) in 2021.
She has worked within the finance function in between these roles, and has seen the function change from both sides of the fence.
The changing structure of the finance function
Finance has evolved from largely separate functions to being one central group function, with a shared service centre with operations.
“A lot of the work has been around process design and continuous improvement.”
Berangere explains that it is “then bringing the more commercial elements from business planning to business partnering together, serving the brands but also serving the group, looking horizontally as well as vertically.”
A lot of this comes down to operating model changes and training rather than the adoption of new systems; that’s something the group is looking at now.
“The finance function has really moved with the organisation from being about accounting or reporting to being quite a lot more about helping us face the challenges for retail, firstly with the pandemic and now inflation. It’s all about smart operating model changes to increase efficiency and systemic changes.”
Change hasn’t been an organic process; it’s more been a series of transformation programmes. This can be a more painful process, Berangere says; while you can make more radical change, but doesn’t necessarily encourage continuous improvement.
“I would rather we continue to evolve more organically. It’s hard sometimes, because you can’t always do that. Once you’re in it, it’s not straightforward.”
“So, it’s all about looking ahead to the big changes that might be coming and preparing for them.”
John Lewis Partnership’s finance team
The finance team has been a big driver for change in the John Lewis Partnership. For example, its 2015 financial strategy pushed the organisation to review its spending habits and make changes to make it more sustainable.
“I’m glad we went ahead with a financial strategy because it effectively saved us as a partnership and enabled us to start to have a plan around transformation, with a lot of money to be able to implement it,” says Berangere.
When it comes to internal changes within finance, while everyone goes through a change curve, Berangere feels it has been particularly good at learning lessons that it has then applied to the next big change.
For example, on a earlier transformation project, the team spent a lot of time designing each process to ensure everyone understood the tasks they would be doing and the training they’d need so they could hit the ground running. While in some ways, this was a useful exercise, it was incredibly time consuming, and probably didn’t deliver enough value to justify the extra time.
“This time, we still did knowledge handover, but less time on process design. Effectively, it allows people to own a job when they start. You have to kind of give them the confidence around that task and then check in as you go along.”
“Some people will see an opportunity, others won’t like the change, but people have got to make their own calls.”
Listening to and supporting all John Lewis Partnership voices
Managing differing viewpoints comes fairly naturally within John Lewis Partnership because it is employee-owned. There is a built in mechanism to hear the opinions of all employees, as they’re all shareholders.
The executive team is also very diverse, made up mostly of women and comprising a diverse range of backgrounds.
While Berangere believes that it’s quite difficult to gauge what difference this makes, what it does do is encourage deeper discussions around important decisions. This, paired with the democratic channels built into the business model, provides the leadership team with a well-rounded view of what’s going on in the business. It also encourages a more empathetic approach than the average business.
John Lewis Partnership, for example, now offers a generous parental leave package, also including special measures for people who have suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth. This carries a lot of social value for the organisation, even if it comes with a financial cost.
“It’s about who you attract and who you retain,” says Berangere.
“You don’t make those decisions because it’s good for business, though you hope they will be.”
“You make those decisions for the sense of community you want to create. You want people to be at their best.”
“Our purpose is not making money. It’s happiness and serving customers. That’s what you get in an organisation that thinks a bit more about its wider stakeholders.”
Berangere’s Power Profile
Who has influenced her career?
“The then-CFO of the Royal Mail group, Marissa Cassoni, who later became CFO of John Lewis Partnership – I followed her there. She cared about me as an individual, but also saw potential that I didn’t even see I had.
Then Dino Rocos, who was the Operations Director of John Lewis, who wanted to bring me into logistics, which was a big gamble for him and for me. I count him as a close friend of mine now. The fact that he supported me in those early moments when I was wondering whether I’d made the right choice. He’s continued supporting me since.”
What music empowers her?
“I listen to such a wide range, but yesterday I was driving back from the south of France and we had a Spotify playlist of the best live music on, in the car. My husband thinks I started losing points on my licence when AC/DC came on. It was really fun driving up the motorways listening to AC/DC. Typically, I don’t listen to hard rock, but yesterday that was it. ‘Thunderstruck’ in particular is really good for driving.”
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