The boss of John Lewis has said the company will always be owned by its staff, “no ifs, no buts” as employees backed her in a vote of confidence.

Dame Sharon White ruled out selling a stake in the business, but said the board could consider external investment in future if it was needed.

She previously was understood to be considering a change to its employee-owned structure after over 70-years.

But the move sparked anger from staff, who currently fully own the retailer.

As well as each owning a stake in the business, John Lewis and Waitrose staff – referred to by the company as partners – have a say in the way it is run and receive a share in its profits.

On Wednesday, the partners cast their votes in their usual biannual vote on the company’s performance and leadership.

The votes are symbolic rather than binding.

Dame Sharon has been seeking radical ways to boost growth after making a huge loss last year and as it struggles to compete with High Street rivals.

However, she told staff she wanted to be “absolutely categorical, John Lewis would always be employee-owned”.

“Our model is the very reason I joined the partnership because I believe profoundly in an approach of kinder capitalism in the 21st century,” she added.

“It’s what makes us special.”

Dame Sharon did admit that “if at any point the partnership couldn’t fund their plans through their own means, the board could consider external investment”, but stressed that it would have to be in line with the partnership’s original trust settlement.

She said it would also need the backing of the council who represent staff.

Wednesday’s confidence vote was held during the all-day meeting, at the Odney Club, a John Lewis-owned retreat near Maidenhead, Berkshire.

Chris Earnshaw, president of the Partnership Council, said the group made up of staff members voted in support of Dame Sharon’s leadership.

However, he said the council did not support last year’s performance, following the full-year losses and no staff bonus.

The ballot has come at an awkward time for Dame Sharon, who has chaired John Lewis since 2020 and is trying to turn around its fortunes.

The chain has been struggling to compete with High Street rivals such as Amazon and Primark, while its supermarket chain, Waitrose, has underperformed Tesco and Aldi during the cost of living crisis.

The partnership posted its first annual loss, of £517m, in 2020 and has since announced a series of store closures. It also plans to cut £900m of costs by January 2026 and job losses are likely.

The retailer sparked anger in March, when it told its about 74,000 partners they would have to go without a bonus for the second time in three years.

Some 85% of fewer than 1,000 staff surveyed at the time said they were not confident in the company’s ability to deliver its strategy.

Raising funds

In March, brand expert Mary Portas wrote an open letter to the partnership, saying one of the most “valued, loved, and trusted retail brands” in the UK had “let go” of its soul.

Ahead of the vote, GlobalData retail managing director Neil Saunders, a former partner at John Lewis, said there was a sense John Lewis had been a “bit on the back foot” and slow to react to changes in the retail markets compared with its rivals, such as Marks and Spencer.