If the board of JD Sports wanted its choice of chief executive to signal a definitive break with the recent past, then Régis Schultz looks an ideal choice.
The Frenchman has run diverse retail operations in several countries and contrasts starkly with Peter Cowgill, the blunt Lancastrian who dedicated most of his career to turning JD from a relatively small UK business into a retail powerhouse.
“Peter did an amazing job,” said Andrew Higginson, the former Wm Morrison chair who was appointed to the same role at JD in July. “His legacy is that the business is trading very strongly. But it is lacking governance infrastructure and needs to modernise”.
“The challenge is to make the business more professional without smothering the entrepreneurial flair that has served us so well,” he added.
Disagreements over governance and the timetable for splitting the executive chair role into a more conventional chair-chief executive structure led to Cowgill being ousted in a boardroom coup in May.
The appointment of Schultz, who will start in September and plans to relocate 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 alongside him at Kingfisher said he went about things with more urgency than other senior executives who were more likely to deliberate at length about big decisions.
“It was quite common for them to spend time chewing the fat, going through all the permutations, getting everyone onside,” the person said. “Régis was closer to the Anglo-Saxon approach, he was a lot more matter-of-fact”.
Schultz was born in the Alsace region on the French-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.
That 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 of Paris Dauphine university was at drinks conglomerate Pernod-Ricard, but it was during an eight-year spell in various roles at Kingfisher that he came to greater prominence.
He returned to France in 2008 but was back in the UK in 2013 as chief executive of Darty, an electricals business that was listed in London despite making most of its sales in France. His three years there are his only experience of running a listed company, and ended with its takeover by French retailer Fnac.
“He came into the company when it wasn’t in great shape,” said one person who worked with him at the time and described 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 rose sharply during the pandemic, in common with many other retailers, its ecommerce offering is not regarded as being up to the standards of online-only peers or leading “bricks and clicks” 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.
“That would have been a tricky issue for whoever took the job,” said one peer of Schultz from Kingfisher days.
But Higginson said Schultz was “low ego” and appeared to have the personal skills and emotional intelligence to keep the company’s “rain makers” — many of whom he has already met — motivated and onside.
Schultz has extensive experience working for private capital. He was chief executive of French furniture retailer BUT when it was owned by OpCapita and Goldman Sachs and ran upmarket grocery chain Monoprix for French-Algerian tycoon Jean-Charles Naouri.
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 across the Middle East and parts of Asia.
That may help him mend fences with JD’s majority shareholder 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 alongside Andy Higginson it “puts the necessary leadership and governance in place to help take JD into its next chapter”.