Boots chief James quits after owner's £5bn sale plan stalls

The chief executive of Boots, Britain's biggest high street pharmacy chain, is quitting after its owner's plans for a £5bn sale or stock market listing stalled.

Sky News has learnt that Sebastian James, who has run Boots since 2018, will leave the company in November.

City sources said this weekend that he had accepted a new role in the healthcare industry.

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His exit comes soon after it emerged that New York-listed Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), the British retailer's owner, had decided for the second time in two years against pursuing a sale or stock market flotation of the chain.

An announcement about Mr James's departure is expected in the coming days.

WBA is not yet thought to have lined up a successor.

Mr James, who previously ran the electricals retailer Dixons (now named Currys), recently endorsed Sir Keir Starmer - a notable move because of his long friendship with Lord Cameron, the foreign secretary.

His departure from Boots will come during the Nottingham-based company's 175th year.

Boots employs about 52,000 people and trades from roughly 1,900 stores.

Its recent trading performance has been strong, with WBA this week saying that like-for-like sales at Boots during the quarter to the end of May rose by 6% and 5.8% across its retail and pharmacy operations respectively.

An insider said Mr James had overseen a successful turnaround, with market share having grown for 13 successive quarters.

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It has been a rare bright spot for WBA, which has had a torrid time and has seen its shares slump.

A WBA spokesperson said this week: "As Walgreens Boots Alliance continues a strategic review of the Company's assets, we took a critical look at Boots.

"While we believe there is significant interest in this business at the right time, Boots' growth, strategic strength and cashflow remain key contributors to Walgreens Boots Alliance.

"We are committed to continuing to invest in Boots UK and to find innovative ways for this business to fulfill its potential."

During a previous auction in 2022, only one bidder - a consortium of Apollo Global Management and Reliance Industries - tabled a formal offer worth about £5.5bn.

However, growing concerns about the global economy had triggered severe doubts among large banks which help finance leveraged buyouts, with Boots among the biggest such deals in Europe.

Among the other challenges facing prospective acquirers at the time was finding an adequate solution for Boots' £8bn pension scheme - one of the largest private retirement funds in the UK.

This issue has now been resolved through an insurance deal struck with Legal & General.

Like many retailers, Boots had a turbulent pandemic, announcing 4,000 job cuts in 2020 as a consequence of a restructuring of its Nottingham head office and store management teams.

Shortly before the COVID pandemic, Boots earmarked about 200 of its UK stores for closure, a reflection of changing shopping habits.

Boots' heritage dates back to John Boot opening a herbal remedies store in Nottingham in 1849.

It opened its 1000th UK store in 1933.

In 2006, Boots merged with Alliance Unichem, a drug wholesaler, with the buyout firm KKR acquiring the combined group in an £11bn deal the following year.

In 2012, Walgreens acquired a 45% stake in Alliance Boots, completing its buyout of the business two years later.

Boots declined to comment on Mr James's exit on Saturday.