The John Lewis partnership: lessons to be learnt?

Introduced by Stacey Stump, Waitrose plc, Bath, on 22 July 1999

There is always interest in the way this prosperous business is run, as the owners are all those working for the Partnership.

The speaker began by outlining the origins of the business. It originated as a family firm, but eventually, John Spedan Lewis, the son of the founder, handed over his shares in two Trust settlements: the first in 1929, the second in 1950. The aim of the Trusts is to achieve `the happiness of employees'.

There is an elected Central Council of about 130 partners who meet six times a year. Their ultimate power is to dismiss the Chairman. Most proposals come from the top management. After the annual results are known, a decision is made each year on the proportion allocated to development reserve from profits and the remainder is paid as a bonus to partners.

The speaker had worked previously for a large company with a very different culture. In his opinion the partnership structure led to a team-work spirit, which in turn led to very good customer relations.
The meeting was well attended and included a small party on holiday from Bavaria. There was much interest in the discussion period in the different working styles between the different chains of super-markets. At the Waitrose store in Bath, a member of the John Lewis Partnership, careful planning was needed to make the most effective use of the limited space available. The meeting was keenly interested in pricing policy.

Members wondered if there were lessons to be learnt that would be of value to other enterprises. There seemed no obvious answers. The work of major co-operatives in other countries was discussed but the style of operation seemed quite different.

Rodney Tye