John Allan, one of the country’s most prominent business leaders, is a mild-mannered man; cool in a crisis, not prone to effusive outbursts of emotion.
Long-married and a devoted grandfather, he has a comfortable air of dependability: you could not imagine feeling threatened by his brand of measured geniality.
Yet next month he steps down prematurely as chair of Tesco — a role he has held, with distinction, for eight years — because the supermarket chain has insisted he leave his post early after four women made allegations about his personal conduct.
On Tuesday housebuilder Barratt followed suit, announcing Mr Allan’s early departure as its chair and arguing that his alleged behaviour could be ‘disruptive’ to the company.
Why such a clamour to be rid of the talented Mr Allan? Barratt and Tesco’s decisions are based on three anonymous and unsubstantiated allegations — all of which he vehemently denies — that, according to the supermarket, ‘risk becoming a distraction’.
Next month John Allan steps down prematurely as chair of Tesco — a role he has held, with distinction, for eight years
Tesco has insisted he leave his post early after four women made allegations about his personal conduct
Mr Allan does admit to a ‘misjudged’ comment. At a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in 2019, when he was president of the lobbying group, he complimented a female colleague on her appearance. He has apologised wholeheartedly for the offence caused.
‘This is the only allegation that has any truth in it,’ he says, speaking to the Mail. ‘I saw the woman; she’d been working really hard and looked a bit down in the mouth, and I intended to cheer her up.
‘I remarked that her dress, ‘really suits your figure’. I think she took exception to the reference to her figure, which, with the benefit of hindsight, I accept.’
The woman did not say anything to him on the spot, although she was apparently so upset she went home for the rest of the day. She complained to a senior manager, who told Carolyn Fairbairn (then the CBI’s director-general.)
Ms Fairbairn viewed the remark as not sexualised but rather as a ‘clumsy and insensitive attempt at a compliment by a man from an older generation’.
‘I agreed to meet the woman and apologised unreservedly within 24 hours,’ says Mr Allan. ‘The woman said she was entirely satisfied with my apology. She was perfectly within her rights to raise the complaint. Yet now, four years after the event, it is still being resurrected and you might question ‘why?’
‘It is very easy to get paranoid. Some people have suggested there is a conspiracy to bring down the CBI and I am collateral damage.’
The lobby group that represents 190,000 British businesses has currently suspended all public engagements after a slew of complaints against senior members and hired a law firm to investigate.
At a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in 2019, when he was president of the lobbying group, Mr Allan complimented a female colleague on her appearance
‘Other friends have suggested someone is out to get me, but I have no evidence that either is the case. I don’t tend to think everything is a result of a conspiracy.’
Aside from that single ill-judged compliment, Mr Allan categorically refutes all three other allegations. One is that, at a CBI event in 2019, he touched a woman’s bottom. He says: ‘I was hosting Philip Hammond, who was Chancellor at the time, and I was pretty occupied looking after him.
‘I’m not someone who lingers for drinks — I hardly drink at all. I tend to get home promptly. I absolutely deny that I did anything I shouldn’t have done.’
He goes on: ‘Fast forward to 2021 and another CBI event where apparently I said something to a woman who was mortally offended by it and it was overheard by another woman.’
The allegation is that he remarked of a woman’s dress that it was, ‘making it hard to concentrate on anything else’. But Mr Allan insists he could not possibly have made the comment, as he wasn’t even there.
‘I asked my PA to examine my computerised diary for 2021 and I didn’t attend a single CBI event that year, so that just cannot be true. We can stand that one up.’
The allegation is that Mr Allan remarked of a woman’s dress that it was, ‘making it hard to concentrate on anything else’
The final event was the Tesco AGM in June 2022, at which it was alleged Mr Allan ‘patted a woman on the bottom’.
‘Tesco has made exhaustive inquiries about this,’ he says. ‘They have contacted every woman — including past employees — who attended and examined CCTV footage. No one has complained openly and an anonymous whistleblowing line has not produced a dicky bird. I am innocent of that and I think Tesco can prove it.’
Even so, the supermarket and Barratt are treating Mr Allan like a pariah. ‘I think both companies felt under a lot of pressure to do something. You have to be seen to be taking action. I suggested to Tesco: why not investigate all the allegations and I’ll step aside temporarily while you do?
‘But Tesco said they would investigate the specific complaint that related to them and asked me to stand down in June and not put myself up for re-election at the next AGM.
‘I was not happy but I had no alternative. I like to think if I had been conducting discussions about another member of the board we might have come to a different conclusion.’
The final event was the Tesco AGM in June 2022, at which it was alleged Mr Allan ‘patted a woman on the bottom’
The presumption of innocence unless proven guilty — the cornerstone of British justice — does not, it seems, apply in his case.
‘I do think it would be good if businesses were a little bit more robust with ‘innocent until proven guilty’,’ he says, without rancour. ‘We have to find a solution as to what happens when people make these kinds of allegations.
‘You will form your own view of whether it was actually necessary for me to step down early from Barratt given that I have never been accused of doing anything untoward there.
‘My performance has been highly rated every time we’ve had an internal or external evaluation.’
He first heard about the allegations when the Guardian newspaper — the witch-finder in chief of the chilling cancel culture sweeping Britain — emailed him this month, announcing at short notice that they intended to run a story about complaints against him.
The 74-year-old is also accused of ‘grabbing’ a woman at the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) annual dinner in May 2019 when he was its president. He’s pictured with former PM Boris Johnson at a CBI conference that same year
This followed the firing of Tony Danker from his post as the CBI’s director-general for ‘conduct that fell short of that expected’. Mr Danker said that many of the charges against him had been distorted but apologised for making colleagues feel uncomfortable.
When Mr Allan found himself embroiled in the furore he was ‘flabbergasted’. ‘My first reaction was, ‘Where on earth have they got this from? It doesn’t bear any relation to reality or the truth. Surely they can’t be serious.’
There has been collective outrage on his behalf: his entire family has rallied behind him; friends and colleagues, many of them women, have deluged him with more than 100 supportive emails. ‘Typically they’ve said, ‘My heart goes out to you. In all the years we’ve known each other you have never been anything but respectful, supportive and kind.’
Indeed, Karen Guerra, a non-executive director at British American Tobacco, wrote to a Sunday newspaper to condemn his ‘character assassination’, saying: ‘I have known John Allan for 45 years, since I was the age of 22 and working in the sexist and often misogynistic era of the early Eighties.
‘While other males were chatting up, touching up or putting down women, John never said or did anything inappropriate. He was at all times the most polite, respectful and equal-minded man I ever had the privilege of working with.’
Mr Allan first heard about the allegations when the Guardian newspaper emailed him this month, announcing at short notice that they intended to run a story about the complaints
Invariably his supporters have sent love to Carole, 77, his second wife, to whom, on November 13, he will have been married for 24 years. They have two children each from previous marriages and six grandchildren between them.
‘We make no differentiation between them. They’re all ours and they’re terrific,’ he says. ‘Grandchildren are one of the joys of later life.’ He beams.
Carole, he says, ‘is angry on my behalf; actually angrier than me. And she’s perfectly entitled to be so.
‘She doesn’t believe a word of this. She feels there hasn’t been due process and there hasn’t been a fair measure of support. My elder daughter is furious. She wants to tell the world about how outrageous these allegations are, while the youngest is concerned about quietly supporting me.’
His first wife, Polish-born Ewa, whom he married in 1970, straight out of Edinburgh University where he studied mathematical sciences, is also supportive. ‘She has said she is willing to speak up for me. We are still very good friends. She’s had one or two calls from journalists and she’s told them in a very forthright way there is no substance to these allegations.’
For himself, he is typically phlegmatic: ‘You don’t survive for 53 years in business without being pretty resilient.
Frances Hardy (pictured) spoke to Tesco boss John Allan in an exclusive interview for the Daily Mail
‘I’d be inhuman if I didn’t feel hard done by on occasions but most of the time I’m focused on getting on with my life, clearing my name, supporting the rest of my family. I’m determined not to be overwhelmed by it.
‘It’s not very gracious, not very fair, but I won’t be depressed by it. And one of the things I will try to do is help come up with solutions; not for myself, but for those who might be wrongly imputed in the future.’
He is considering suing the Guardian. ‘I’m determined, as far as I possibly can, to prove my innocence but I’m conscious that if you don’t know what it is precisely you’re being accused of, it’s very hard to disprove.’
Ironically, he is a champion of women’s rights: ‘It’s a bit galling, because anyone who knows me knows that I’ve spent a fair chunk of my working life actually trying to ensure there are opportunities for women. I’ve definitely been on the side of the angels.
‘At Barratt we had three women on the board; two from ethnic minorities, and my successor will be a woman.
‘Gender diversity has improved materially in the companies I’ve been involved with — but all this risks turning the clock back.
‘If I want to put the frighteners on a male friend in a senior business role, I just have to say: ‘Look what happened to me. It could be you next.’ And they go a whiter shade of pale.
‘It would be ironic if men ended up with male chaperones because they felt they couldn’t have a conversation with a woman without having someone with them who could testify that nothing untoward had happened.
Mr Allan is considering suing the Guardian and is determined to prove his innocence
‘And it isn’t just those at the top. The guy in the branch office in Darlington could just as easily be put in the same position. Every man is potentially exposed.
‘Now we’re getting to a stage where men’s rights also need to be protected. It’s not just in business — it could be the Archbishop of Canterbury. People from any walk of life could be falsely accused.
‘I don’t think men have always behaved well towards women in the past. Patently they haven’t and the world is a much better place than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
‘It’s vital that women’s rights are protected, but we have to do so in a sensible way so men are protected, too. One of the good things about how our society has advanced is that there are much better opportunities for women now and I’ve never found it difficult to find really talented, capable and experienced women to sit on boards of companies. So if that were driven into reverse I think it would be absolutely dreadful.
‘Younger male CEOs are now saying: ‘Be careful about getting in a lift with so-and-so in case an allegation is made.’ And this is really unhelpful to women.’
Mr Allanis a champion of women’s rights and spent a ‘fair chunk’ of his working life ‘actually trying to ensure there are opportunities for women’
There is much to like about the calm common sense of his rationale: I cannot imagine him raising his voice, let alone table-thumping or ranting.
I wonder if he worries about his eldest grandson — now 19 — negotiating the minefield of dating etiquette and he replies: ‘I think you have to worry about your grandsons and granddaughters.
‘There are hazards for young women like having their drinks spiked. I don’t think it’s one-sided. My stepdaughter is very sensible and she has educated her daughter on the hazards to watch out for but she’s also told her son, ‘Be very careful about complimenting young women.’
Isn’t the world poorer for such strictures? ‘I agree, but I paid a compliment and it was taken badly. Lesson learnt.’
He is an understated man; impeccably suited but not remotely flashy. And considering his means — he earned £690,000 per annum as chair of Tesco alone — his tastes are modest. He and Carole, a semi-retired art dealer, live in a flat in South-West London.
Mr Allan earned £690,000 per annum as chair of Tesco alone but he e and Carole, a semi-retired art dealer, live in a flat in South-West London
It is their only property and providence, inherited from his Scottish forbears, is ingrained.
The only child of a former chief petty officer in the Royal Navy, he says: ‘I was always told: ‘Put a few bawbees [Scottish sixpences] away for the future’.’
He tells me he has 200 unread books on his Kindle, some of which he’ll read on his pending holiday to Spain. Why accumulate so many? ‘They were all 99p!’ he laughs. ‘I’m very mean — although a couple of days ago I splashed out £7.99 on Aasmah Mir’s autobiography about growing up in Glasgow.’
‘You’ll be telling me you drive a ten-year-old Ford Focus next,’ I joke.
‘I’ve introduced Carole to the joy of bus passes,’ he says. ‘I took her along to Snappy Snaps so we could get our photos for them. Quite often we just get the bus.
‘I find it amusing when some investment banker phones me and I’ll say, ‘I’m sitting on No 22.’ London is wonderfully served with public transport.’ (For the record he also drives an electric BMW.)
He is quietly philanthropic. There is nothing ostentatious about the charities he discreetly supports: IntoUniversity and Debate Mate, which help young people from deprived backgrounds gain access to higher education and hone their leadership and public speaking skills. ‘These are frankly awesome charities that operate on a shoestring. I give a bit of money to them. I’m actually involved, too, in judging debates and sometimes taking part in them.’
I remark that it would be an awful loss if they, too, dispensed with his services. ‘They might well decide, ‘We are dealing with young people and we don’t want you anywhere near us.’ But I’ve had no such reaction so far. But after 53 years of work and a few weeks of trauma, at the moment I just fancy chilling out and relaxing for a while.’
He reflects: ‘I’m in the twilight of my career and very close to retirement. If I’d been 54 this could have been a real career-stopper. There are no other public companies to show me the door but I do not intend to be overwhelmed by this.
‘I’m determined to get on with my life and find positive things to do and try to make a difference, particularly to the lives of underprivileged young people.’