Is John Lewis the best company in Britain to work for?
It is owned by its employees – or partners – who have a say in how it is run, and receive a share of the profits. Surely this is the way every organisation should be run . . .
* Jon Henley
* The Guardian, Tuesday 16 March 2010
* Article history
John Lewis's flagship store in central London Photograph: Alex Segre / Alamy/Alamy
It's just before opening time on bonus day at John Lewis and, boy, are we excited. Up and down the country, the 69,000 people who work for the nation's favourite retailer are gathered, impatient. At head office in London's Victoria, in 28 John Lewis department stores from ...view middle of the document...
He holds the card triumphantly high: 15%. "Magic," cries Lee Bowra from childrenswear. "Absolutely brilliant. That's our deposit complete. We can buy a house."
In the depths of what everyone keeps telling us is the deepest financial and economic crisis since the second world war, John Lewis plainly has not done badly (operating profit up 20%, if you didn't read the business pages last week). That's partly because it stacks its shelves with goods of a certain quality, and sells them to a certain kind of customer with a certain standard of service. After all, Middle England loves John Lewis: if a product is on sale in one of its stores, you know you can trust it. Plus you can be sure you'll be served by someone who really knows what they're talking about and, most unusually of all, is eager to help.
Partly, it's down to that splendidly arcane Edwardian slogan: Never Knowingly Undersold. It also has something to do with the reason everyone was cheering so loudly last Thursday: unlike other high-street names (unlike most companies, in fact), John Lewis is owned by a trust on behalf of its employees, each of whom has a say in its running and a share in its profits. This is Britain's largest and most venerable example of worker co-ownership. Its avowed purpose is not the making of shedloads of short-term profit to placate a bunch of remote and greedy shareholders, but "the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business" (that's from the partnership's constitution. It bears re-reading).
And at a time when the limits of the more traditional capitalist model of shareholder ownership stand cruelly exposed, John Lewis's ongoing success is increasingly prompting all three main political parties to point to it as a possible template – for other companies, for schools, hospitals, even local councils.
But what's it like to work for an outfit run like this? Well, it's worth noting that there are some partners who weren't at work last week to hear the 2010 bonus announced. They were off staying at one of the five holiday centres the partnership owns and runs for the benefit of its employees. These include a 16th-century castle with private beach on Brownsea island in Poole harbour, an imposing Victorian pile on the shores of Lake Windermere, a 24-room outdoor and watersports club on Lake Bala in north Wales, and a country house hotel in 4,000 rolling acres of Hampshire.
Nicola McRoberts and her partner, Pedro Pereira, are staying in one of the 12 modern wooden lodges on the Leckford Estate, near Stockbridge. The self-catering cabins, popular with young families, have two or three bedrooms and are smartly furnished with leather sofas and bedlinen that a John Lewis shopper might recognise. Nicola works in the stationery department in Welwyn, and Pedro is a Waitrose chef. They're here for five nights, at a cost of £176. "It's a good company to work for," says Pedro. "I didn't realise how good until I...