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John Lewis has promoted Paula Nickolds, who joined the company as a graduate trainee, to be the first female managing director in the department store group’s 152-year history.

Retailer John Lewis has announced that Paula Nickolds will become its new managing director in 2017, replacing Andy Street who is stepping down this month to run as Conservative candidate for Mayor of the West Midlands.

Nickolds, 43, will take over from Andy Street in January. She has worked for the retail group for 22 years, joining as a graduate trainee in London.

She joined John Lewis in 1994 as a graduate trainee, holding a number of senior roles before joining the board in 2013 as its buying and brand director.

She is currently the company’s commercial director and was responsible for “innovation” in John Lewis’s product range and the look and feel of its shops.

Heading one of the UK’s biggest and most respected retail brands, Nickolds will be one of only a handful of female bosses in an industry in which more than half of employees are women.

Only Véronique Laury, head of B&Q owner Kingfisher, and Katie Bickerstaffe, head of Dixons Carphone’s UK and Irish business, hold comparable roles.

Nickolds takes over at a tricky period for the department store, where profits slumped 31% to £32m in the first half of this year as it struggled to adapt to the shift to online shopping.

Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, the department store’s parent group, which also owns Waitrose, said:

“At a time of transformation in the retail sector, Paula’s progressive and dynamic leadership is just what’s needed for the next phase of modern retailing.”

Nickolds said:

“As a partner with 22 years’ service, I know just how special the John Lewis Partnership is. Driven by our unique business model, and with innovation in our DNA, I am immensely excited to lead John Lewis on the next stage of our journey.”

Former and current John Lewis staff, known as partners because they jointly own the business and take a share in its profits, said Nickolds was “inspirational” and a “role model”.

According to a spokesperson, all previous John Lewis managing directors have been appointed from within the company.