Does John Lewis provide a blueprint for a more equitable economy?
Although it may not be doing quite as well as last year the John Lewis Partnership has had an “outstanding” Xmas. It is one of the winners, along with Next, on Britain’s rather depressing high street.
John Lewis set up his first store in 1864 but it wasn’t until 1905 that his son, John Spedan Lewis, expanded earlier policies by sharing the profits with the employees. This later evolved into a formal partnership. The principle and slogan never knowingly undersold was adopted in 1925 and originally launched as – ‘Bainbridge and Muschamp are resolved that they will not be undersold by any House in the Kingdom’.
Over the years John Lewis has made three choices, and stuck to them: to position themselves at the premium end of the market; to give a price guarantee; and to enrol their staff by making them owners too. You would be hard pushed to identify such clarity of differentiation in some of their competitors operating at a lower price point. It is self evident, to me at least, that in tough times the most strongly positioned businesses do best.
My personal experience of shopping in one of their stores is that they care about what they do and I actually matter: perhaps one of the most obvious benefits of employee ownership. Over Xmas I went into Waitrose and Sainsburys just after the biggest rush of the season. Sainsburys wasn’t too well stocked and it looked like no one cared too much about the mess. Waitrose had something on every shelf and it was an oasis of calm. I sometimes feel like I am being invited into someone’s “front room” when I go into Waitrose.
It is no mean feat to align the interests of employees of a big business in such a traditional industry. It is something that the high-tech world takes for granted but traditional industries, like Banking, often find it harder to change. I was once told that the way businesses are organised reflects the century that the industry first developed. I think there may be something in that.
As a country we are struggling with aligning both interest and rewards more equitably too. John Lewis is symbolic of a fairer society. The 75000 or so John Lewis “partners” could all vote to float the business and pocket upwards of £100k each, but they don’t.
I wonder what a John Lewis bank would look like and how it would behave?