Interview with Richard Blackledge: Looking to the future of Sheffield’s shopping institution

John Lewis Sheffield's head of branch, Tom Holmes, for a Star Interview spread.
John Lewis Sheffield's head of branch, Tom Holmes, for a Star Interview spread.
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“I love the fact that people still call it Cole Brothers,” says Tom Holmes, surrounded by customers sitting down for elevenses in the café at Sheffield’s John Lewis store.

“Why should people stop calling it that? My parents used to bring me here as a child on a Saturday morning to have my shoes fitted. The shop is an institution in Sheffield.”

John Lewis Sheffield's head of branch, Tom Holmes, for a Star Interview spread.

John Lewis Sheffield's head of branch, Tom Holmes, for a Star Interview spread.

And Tom should know. Brought up in Richmond and a former pupil at City School, he joined John Lewis as an 18-year-old following A-levels at Sheffield College, and rose through the ranks to become head of branch in his home city.

In charge of almost 430 John Lewis ‘partners’ – staff, in other words, but so called as the business is owned by its workers – Tom is well aware of the Sheffield department store’s heritage as Cole Brothers, a name that dates back to 1847 and was retired in favour of a rebrand 15 years ago.

He has taken on his role at a time of great change. Yards away from the Barker’s Pool store, the old Grosvenor House Hotel has been pulled down and work is beginning on the first phase of the city’s £480 million new retail quarter – posing the vexed question of where John Lewis sits within the development, and whether it will move into a modern replacement for its Barker’s Pool premises, built in the early 1960s.

Tom is also answerable to John Lewis’ new managing director Paula Nickolds, who started in January and has warned of potential job cuts amid the need to cut costs. Profits across the group, with its famous ‘never knowingly undersold’ price promise, fell 31 per cent to £32 million in the first half of this year, a sign of the challenge posed by customers’ increasing preference for online shopping.

John Lewis Sheffield's head of branch, Tom Holmes, for a Star Interview spread.

John Lewis Sheffield's head of branch, Tom Holmes, for a Star Interview spread.

However, he is a firm believer in the need to retain physical stores on the high street, and thinks that browsing products on the internet will never wholly supplant the experience of a shopping trip.

“The online business has grown phenomenally, but at John Lewis we believe in both,” says Tom brightly.

“You still want to walk around a shop, you want to be able to fulfil your purchase in a store – to see, touch, feel – but you might complete your purchase online.

“Who knows what’s going to happen in retail in five or 10 years?”

John Lewis Sheffield's head of branch, Tom Holmes, for a Star Interview spread.

John Lewis Sheffield's head of branch, Tom Holmes, for a Star Interview spread.

Tom, aged 35, started at John Lewis under an A-level training programme – “I guess today we’d call it an apprentice scheme” – which gave him a taste of ‘pretty much everything’ in the Sheffield branch. He stayed for 10 years, enrolled on a leadership scheme, and went to Nottingham to become an operations manager.

A spell at the then-brand-new store at Liverpool One followed, before Tom ‘headed into the world of head office’ in London for two years.

“I was responsible for driving sales from shops as low south as Nottingham, all the way up to Aberdeen.

“I never went to university – that wasn’t really what happened when I was of that age group, and from my background. I’ve always been more entrepreneurial – go into work, learn, on the job.”

John Lewis Sheffield's head of branch, Tom Holmes, for a Star Interview spread.

John Lewis Sheffield's head of branch, Tom Holmes, for a Star Interview spread.

Tom succeeded James Prince, who left to open the new Leeds branch last year, as boss in Sheffield last August.

“Sheffield gives me this incredible work-life balance – it’s a brilliant place to bring up your family,” explains Tom, a keen runner who lives in Whirlow and is married to Sarah, 38, a teaching assistant at the Rowan School in Dore. Together they have two children – son Charlie, four, and daughter Evie, seven.

“I’m five minutes away from the Peak District, and 15 minutes away from a city centre that for me is the most buoyant I’ve ever seen it.”

Like his predecessor, Tom is a board member of the Business Improvement District, an initiative funded by companies to boost the city centre.

Talks are ongoing between John Lewis, the council and its development partner Queensberry about a potential new store in Sheffield, but Tom firmly denies that the retailer has held up the city centre’s redevelopment.

“That’s not the case. John Lewis, like all other retailers, will be keen to see what has been produced by Queensberry. We’ve always said we will be actively working with Sheffield City Council and Queensberry to bring this to life.

“The developer needs to create, and will start to share, what those plans look like. The decisions about the retail quarter sit with Queensberry and the council – of course, John Lewis is a stakeholder in that. And there are active conversations between all parties, which is a positive sign. At least we are making some progress.

“But the people of Sheffield want to see a change in the space.”

He adds: “It would be wonderful to be running a business unit of a new retail quarter. But actually, it would make no difference, because I’m doing it and believing in it today. This shop’s here. What’s really important for me is that people continue to come into the city centre.”

But, addressing the prospect of a new store, Tom admits: “It would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it. A new generation store for the people who already shop with us, opening up to new people as well.”

Encouragingly, it is understood that custom has not drained away from Sheffield to the flagship store in Leeds, an extravagant, architect-designed building featuring a beauty spa, coffee department, a specific Yorkshire focus to the stock and other novelties.

“I see John Lewis as a brand – it doesn’t matter where people shop. But people like Sheffield. There’s an affinity with the shop, we’re really proud of it. Leeds is 30 miles up.”

Tom appears relaxed about Meadowhall, despite worries elsewhere over the impact of its proposed £300 million extension, saying the mall ‘creates jobs and a lot of economic activity’.

“It’s just part of our landscape now, and that’s fine. It’s a different retail offer, out of town.”

And he says the improvements on The Moor ‘should be applauded’.

“I get excited about thinking what the future of Sheffield should look like. What it needs is more people to see that, and believe in it. It’s too costly to make the wrong decisions.”

In the meantime Tom is busying himself with life on the shop floor in Barker’s Pool – “You can’t do this job from an office” – where 14 years is the average length of service for employees, who enjoy generous pensions and an annual bonus.

“I’ve got partners that have worked here for almost 50 years. I know pretty much every one by name. I always remember someone saying to me ‘Bargains start at Cole Brothers’, and I used to think ‘That’s the first place to go, because I know they’ll look after me and I know I’ll get value for money’. That’s always stuck with me.”

‘Why we need the top brands’

Tom Holmes says Sheffield city centre is ‘on the move’ and the development of the Cavendish Building – the initial stage of the new retail quarter – is ‘game-changing’.

“City centres are not just about retail any more. You need to have a much more holistic approach.

“To thrive we can learn from the past, and how other people have developed their centres. This is the advantage of coming to it later than others.”

He thinks the ‘gold route’ for pedestrians, which starts at the railway station, goes up Howard Street and continues onwards, is ‘very impressive’.

“I say to people ‘Look at the potential of this city’. I walk visitors up through the station, Sheffield Hallam University, the Winter Garden, the Peace Gardens, do a right turn and show them the Crucible, and I say to them: ‘Our next step is retail.’

“We’ve got John Lewis here, we’ve got a healthy high street, but when you compare that against other high streets, and brands that are in other cities at the moment, they’re not here, and we want those brands here in Sheffield.”