Thursday, September 4, 2014
The John Lewis blueprint for employee-owned companies has been widely debated in the department store’s 150th anniversary year.
And the success of the model has even encouraged deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to spearhead government changes that incentivize other firms to follow suit, offering tax breaks on bonuses to staff in employee-owned companies.
The virtues of John Spedan Lewis’s 19th century vision in inspiring staff loyalty, team spirit and a desire to deliver unrivalled customer service are very much embodied in Andy Street who leads the business today.
An engaging manner and dynamic enthusiasm that can also be felt are the tell-tale signs of someone who has John Lewis imprinted in his DNA.
And Mr Street, 51, is immensely proud to have worked at the firm “for 29 years next week”, starting on the shop floor as a trainee manager and working his way up to become managing director of a £4bn business.
Making one of his regular visits to Norwich, it is almost like he is visiting old friends - but on this occasion he has come to congratulate the team at the store in All Saints’ Green on winning John Lewis’s prestigious “branch of the quarter” accolade.
Beating off competition from 40 other branches nationally, the Norwich staff - known as “partners” in recognition of the company’s unorthodox structure - shone across every judging criteria from customer service and partner satisfaction to sales and profits.
Mr Street said: “John Lewis in Norwich is an extremely successful shop that has established its reputation in East Anglia very well.
“And it is continuing to grow much faster than other shops around the country, giving us the confidence to make future investment into East Anglia.”
Hundreds of Norwich customers raised a glass of elderflower punch to toast John Lewis when it celebrated its 150th anniversary in May.
John Lewis staff, including “Mr Lewis”(Chris Heaford) dressed in period costume to celebrate the landmark.
Partners at the Norwich store dressed in vintage clothing, and offered Bank Holiday weekend shoppers cupcakes and drinks, while a samba band serenaded passers-by outside and smooth jazz played near the coffee shop.
The city-centre shop started life as Bonds, founded on Ber Street as a small drapers shop in 1879, and was bombed in the Baedeker Raids in 1942.
Bonds was rebuilt in 1951, and was bought by John Lewis in 1982, changing its name in 2001.
Nationally, an exhibition at the store in Oxford Street, London, featured a replica of the office where John Lewis’s son, John Spedan Lewis, implemented his plans to turn the company into a partnership making all its employees co-owners - despite his father’s misgivings.
An installation told the story of how a Second World War bomb threatened the future of the company while another explained the “craft of shopkeeping”, an “obsession” of Mr John Lewis, according to the firm’s archivist Judy Faraday.
He revealed that the store’s sales were 6pc up on the same time last year and factoring in online performance, revenues in Norwich had grown by 10pc.
“Ten per cent is well above any number driven by economic recovery. At John Lewis in Norwich we are running at four times the growth rate for national non-food sales,” he said.
The store’s performance reflected recent research commissioned by the city’s Business Improvement District team that provided tangible evidence of Norwich’s status as a national “top 10” retail destination.
Pointing to signs on the wall, distilling the John Lewis principles for partners, Mr Street said success was driven by “day-to-day excellent customer service” as well as their emphasis on competitive pricing.
He also highlighted the seamless way John Lewis had adapted to the online world making it easy for customers to use their website.
“Bricks and clicks” were equally important and customers were using online and in-store shopping in tandem - perhaps browsing online and buying in store, inspecting items in the store and then ordering from home, or opting for the increasingly popular click and collect.
He said: “It is the same customers who are shopping online and in store.”
It had become clear that any fears that online sales would kill the high street were misplaced - to be a “retail winner” in the modern age it was necessary to have both a great website and a great presence in towns and cities.
The Norwich store’s head of branch, Richard Marks - himself a John Lewis veteran - added that another factor in their award-winning success had been the £7m refurbishment programme that took place three years ago.
The next stage of evolution would come at the end of October when a Kuoni travel agent opened in the Norwich store, a development heralded as “very exciting” by Mr Marks.
“It will be the first in East Anglia; the nearest one is currently in Cambridge,” he said.
Mr Street said staff at John Lewis were extremely proud and pleased about Mr Clegg’s promotion of their employee-owned company model, embodied by the famous annual bonus that this year brought partners 15pc of their annual salary.
He and Mr Marks both agreed that the bonus scheme – all 91,000 John Lewis and Waitrose staff receive it – made a “massive difference”, making partners feel they play an important part in the business by sharing in the profits.
Mr Marks added that the company was also good at sharing information with partners, through a weekly magazine, and partners were given an important voice through the company’s democratic channels.
“We have a lot of long service partners and we celebrate 25 years’ service by giving partners six months’ paid leave,” he said.
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