Everybody, it seems, loves the John Lewis Partnership. Its stores throng with happy shoppers and smiling assistants, while its Waitrose supermarkets seem perfectly attuned to the middle-class aspirations of those prepared to pay to avoid shopping at Tesco. It’s wonderfully profitable, and without those avaricious shareholders to feed, those profits can be split between reinforcing the business and rewarding the employees.

There is much to admire in the JLP model. M&S had to pay millions to lure Marc Bolland from Wm Morrison, and the bosses of Sainsbury, Tesco and (presumably) Asda expect seven-figure rewards. Mark Price, the cuddly chief executive of Waitrose, could almost name his, er, price to go and work for the opposition, yet he seems quite happy where he is. The rewards for the top Partners are substantial, but not grotesque. Executive Chairman Charlie Mayfield got £950,000 and Price received between £400,000 and £750,000 (as a private company, JLP is not obliged to be specific).

The senior executives are nearly all home-grown. When the workers were asked whether they wanted bigger bonuses or to keep their generous final-salary pension scheme, they voted to keep the scheme. It all shows loyalty and commitment that few other companies can match, so it’s hardly surprising that  the politicians are trying to rub some of the gloss onto themselves, andf asking why we can’t have more businesses like JLP.

The short answer is that few entrepreneurs are like John Spedan Lewis. As a rule, they tend not to give a successful, established business to their workers as he did. After all, his father didn’t – he left his two department stores to his two sons. John Spedan was a fine businessman, displaying a “mixture of autocracy and altruism” controlling costs while keeping the workforce abreast of changing customer tastes. He railed against the “perversion of capitalism” that today would be called maximising shareholder value.

He had three children, but the elder son died in childhood, his daughter did not long outlive him, and his younger son seems to have had nothing to do with the business. Perhaps all this rather weakened the genetic imperative that encourages businessmen to pass the family firm down the generations. The subsequent managements of the group have done a fine job, but without the dowry of two large, prime London properties, it’s fanciful to think that the Partnership would be anywhere near the force it is today.

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