Boots Chief Sebastian James Quits, Heads to New Health Care Role

LONDON Boots’ managing director Sebastian James is leaving his role and heading to a new job in health care after the stalled sale of the British beauty and pharmacy chain.

James, who joined Boots in 2018, is leaving the company 10 months after former chief executive officer of parent, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Roz Brewer, handed in her resignation.

James said that “Boots has shaped how people access health and beauty products on the high street, and I am proud to have been part of a business that continues to hold a critical role at the center of the U.K. health and beauty sectors.”

He will continue with the company until November, and the company said it has already begun looking for a successor.

Ornella Barra, chief operating officer, International, at Walgreens Boots Alliance, said James’ tenure has seen Boots “transform through a steadfast focus on investment, innovation and growth into the number one health and beauty destination in the U.K.”

According to a report in Sky News, James is headed to Veonet, a European chain of ophthalmology clinics, owned by private equity and pension funds. WWD has contacted Veonet, which is based in Münich, Germany for comment.

James’ exit follows Walgreens Boots Alliance failure to offload the chain of 1,900 stores for the second time in the space of four years.

Walgreens Boots Alliance first explored a sale of Boots and its No7 beauty brand in 2021, but later decided against it, citing the macro-economic environment and mounting speculation that the U.S. would fall into a recession.

At the time, the company explained that while there had been buyer interest, no third party was able to make an offer that “adequately reflects the high potential value of Boots and No7 Beauty Company.”

It had been widely reported that India’s Reliance Industries and U.S. private equity investor Apollo Global Management made a joint offer for Boots, which then operated more than 2,200 stores, valuing it at between $5 billion and $6 billion.

According to sources, Walgreens Boots Alliance tried once again to sell or float the business this year, but did not attract adequate interest.

It’s likely that James left for other reasons, too. As reported, Walgreens Boots Alliance has been focusing increasingly on the U.S. health care business, and is less on retail, a costly and competitive business which is not as lucrative as pharmaceuticals.

Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData, said last September that Walgreens Boots Alliance, which previously grew through various pharmacy acquisitions, has been looking to consolidate and focus its efforts on the U.S. health care sector.

“The retail side of the business is simply not an area that Walgreens wants to pursue as a major growth opportunity. The potential sale of Boots, which Walgreens would like to dispose of but is waiting for the right conditions, is a further sign of the retreat from retail,” Saunders said.

Saunders added that Brewer most likely decided to leave, as she has “much more experience” in retail.

During his six years at Boots, James expanded the beauty offer in a bid to rival Sephora and Space NK. He brought in hundreds of new brands, re-fitted beauty halls up and down the U.K. and employed more specialist beauty advisors.

The results have been uneven, however. While some Boots stores – in London and other big city centers – are glossy, buzzy and brimming with products, others are understaffed, disorganized and often lacking in stock.

Under James’ leadership, Boots also expanded its role as the U.K.’s largest pharmacy chain to offer more than 160 healthcare services for both private and NHS patients, according to the company.

Boots’ portfolio of owned brands includes No7, Soap & Glory, Liz Earle Beauty and Sleek MakeUP.

In the third fiscal quarter ended May 31, Boots delivered a thirteenth consecutive quarter of market share growth fueled by retail and pharmacy sales. Retail sales increased by 6 percent, with growth across all categories.

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