Is John Lewis the best company in Britain to work for?
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 Southampton to Aberdeen, 223 Waitrose supermarkets from Plymouth to Norwich, the ritual’s the same: a specially chosen staff member (“partner” in JL-speak) opens an envelope, and reads out a number.
The number will be a percentage. Over the last decade or so, it has ranged from 9% to 22%. It’s the percentage of their salary that each John Lewis employee, from executive chairman to checkout operative, takes home as that year’s bonus. If the number is 8%, they’re looking at an extra month’s pay; 16% is two months. So what’s in the envelope is pretty important, and in the partnership’s flagship Oxford Street store, partners, nearly 2,500 of them, are everywhere: crowded dozens-deep in beauty on the ground floor, lined up on the escalators, hanging over the balconies in the atrium.
“This is the moment,” says Adrian Wenn from pictures, lights and mirrors. “This is the moment when all you’ve done, the contribution you’ve made, when it all comes home. Hope it’s a good one. I’ve got a wedding to pay for.” A good one it is. Frank d’Souza from furniture (picked because he closed the store’s largest single sale of last year, at £50,000) tears open the envelope as the assembled throng counts down. 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 joined.” Employer-employee relations at John Lewis, says Nicola, “are completely different. They want you to be happy.”
The estate is a working farm which, says its managing director Malcolm Crabtree, sitting at the wheel of his Land Rover, supplies Waitrose with flour for bread, barley, oats for cereal, free-range chickens and eggs, organic milk, apples, pears and a lot of mushrooms. It also supplies partners with two nine-hole golf courses, a cricket pitch, bowling green, tennis courts, two swimming pools and some of the finest fly-fishing in the country, on the fabled river Test.
Just down from the lodges, in the heart of the estate and a stroll from the river, is Leckford Abbas, an appealing ivy-clad manor house now run as a hotel for partners. There’s an oak- panelled library, an elegant lounge, a billiard room and a well-stocked bar, and the food in the dining room is fresh from the Leckford estate. The most noticeable difference between this and some chic home counties hostelry is the price. B&B here is £20.25 per person per night, and the three-course …