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A SENSE OF HISTORY.

Waitrose today accounts for half of the business of the John Lewis Partnership. Chairman Sir Stuart Hampson tells Julian Hunt what makes the Partnership different from the rest of the retail crowd

If Sir Stuart Hampson has a favourite soundbite, it is this: "A company that has a sense of history wants to have a history in the future." As only the fourth ever chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, Sir Stuart probably has more reason than most to want to nurture this knowledge of where the business has come from.

But Sir Stuart doesn't do it for sentimental reasons: "When you inherit something that has become admired and very strong, you feel a great obligation to hand that over to your successors in even better shape. We want to have a history in the future. This idea is a real guiding force. We don't want to take short cuts or bow out when things get difficult."

The Partnership can trace its roots back to 1929 when John Spedan Lewis decided to create a trust to run his family's long established company as a business that shared its profits with its staff.

And in 1950, under the terms of a second trust, Spedan Lewis relinquished his controlling interest in the business. The Golden Jubilee of the second trust settlement has proved to be a time of reflection for all those involved with the Partnership -- if only because of last year's controversy over the misplaced notion John Lewis could be sold off and the proceeds shared by staff.

Sir Stuart says that experience taught everybody not to take the Partnership for granted: "We have a business that enables us to share, year in, year out, in its success and participate in the way its decisions are taken. And an appreciation of what we have is the legacy of last summer."

So what is the John Spedan legacy? As far as Sir Stuart is concerned, it is a business firmly grounded in ideas and ideals that many industrialists still see as revolutionary.

"If you go back to 1929 when John Spedan Lewis first wrote the constitution, he identified the four components of a successful business. The first was employees -- and he gave them this unique opportunity to share in the success of the business. The second was customers in terms of delivering value and very high levels of service and assortment.

"The third was suppliers. Back in 1929 he was writing about the importance of having good relationships with suppliers and indeed paying them on time -- one of the grounds for sacking the chairman is if bills are not paid on time. That's something that everybody is getting excited about today -- but it's been absolutely implicit in the way we trade.

"The fourth is the community. Again it says a great deal about how far sighted he was that 70 years ago Spedan Lewis was talking about the importance of a business being firmly rooted in the community where it traded.

"All of those things have been absolutely fundamental to the way that we have been trading for 70 years."

The partnership's unique structure also allows it to take a long-term view on every aspect of its business.

But Sir Stuart is at pains to point out this approach is not a hallmark of complacency. "Although I would like to think some customers recognise our unusual corporate structure and admire us for it, if we don't offer the highest standards and better service than the competition, they will go somewhere else.

"And because we are such an open organisation we are constantly challenging ourselves to make the business stronger. We draw on the enthusiasm, experience and talent in our business and see how we can embrace that to bring ideas forward. That is an accelerator to our business rather than the great burden of cost as I know many people see it."

Sir Stuart believes this democratic approach makes a real difference to the bottom line: "Profit, knowledge and power sharing are the three principles of the Partnership, The reason we get the real buy in from partners is that we are all working together to make a better business -- building job satisfaction and job fulfilment.

"That's what determines the character of the business. Without that there would be nothing."

That may help explain why the partnership spent so much time and effort ensuring all the staff in its newly acquired Somerfield supermarkets had fully embraced Waitrose's culture before their stores reopened.

"The way that people think as partners in the business makes them take that extra little care in the way they operate shops and interact with customers. That gives us an extra impetus to our success," says Sir Stuart.

And he is adamant the Partnership's principles are still as valid today as they were 50 years ago when the second trust was signed. "The RSA has produced a report saying a company solely focused on shareholders will always underperform because it is just looking at the profit and not the process of creating profit.

"If you focus on the drivers of success, they are employees, customers, suppliers and reputation in the community. And a management that always looks in that direction will always satisfy its shareholders.

"So our concept is bang up to date although the reality is that you will not get many businesses of our scale being set up in this way in the future."
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Title Annotation:John Lewis Partnership
Comment:A SENSE OF HISTORY.(John Lewis Partnership)
Author:Hunt, Julian
Publication:Grocer
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 24, 2000
Words:907
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