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

If the JD Sports board wants its choice of chief executive to signal a final break with the recent past, then Régis Schultz seems an ideal choice.

The Frenchman has run diverse retail operations in several countries and contrasts sharply with Peter Cowgill, the outspoken Lancaster who has devoted most of his career to turning JD from a relatively small British business into a retail powerhouse.

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

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

Disagreements over governance and a timetable for splitting the role of executive chairman into a more conventional chairman-chief-executive structure led to Cowgill’s ouster in a boardroom coup in May.

The appointment of Schultz, who will start 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 record.”

Another person who worked alongside him at Kingfisher said he dealt with things with more urgency than other senior executives who were more inclined to think long-term about important decisions.

“It was pretty common for them to spend their time chewing the fat, going through all the permutations, pulling everybody aside,” the person said. “Régis was closer to the Anglo-Saxon approach, it was much more real.”

Schultz was born in the Alsace region on the Franco-German border. His earliest experience in retail 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.

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

His first senior role after an MBA at Paris Dauphine University’s elite business school 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 returned to the UK in 2013 as chief executive of Darty, an electrical engineering business which was registered in London, although it made most of its sales in France. The three years there were his only experience of running a listed company and culminated in its acquisition by French retailer Fnac.

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

While JD’s digital sales have grown sharply during the pandemic, like many other retailers, its e-commerce offering is not considered to be up to the standards of online-only partners or leading brick-and-mortar operators such as Next.

One of the key 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.

“It would have been a tough ask for whoever took the job,” said a peer of Schultz’s from the 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 has already met — motivated and engaged.

Schultz has extensive experience working for private equity. He was chief executive of French furniture retailer BUT when it was owned by OpCapita and Goldman Sachs and ran the Monoprix grocery chain for Franco-Algerian tycoon Jean-Charles Nouri.

He comes to 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 majority shareholder JD Pentland. The group, controlled by the billionaire Rubin family, backed Cowgill almost to the end.

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

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