John Lewis is one of the UK's best loved businesses - both by its customers and staff. Partners' counsellor Patrick Lewis speaks to Jonathan Stapleton about how the retailer's employee-owned structure and wide-ranging benefits offering have engaged its workforce.
Not many companies have a written constitution that sets out their principles, governance system and rules. The John Lewis Partnership does – both to protect the vision of the partnership’s founder, John Spedan Lewis, and also to lay down a set of principles demanding a better standard of business.
The constitution states that the partnership’s ultimate purpose is “the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business”.
Staff – or partners, as they are known in John Lewis parlance – are, by and large, very happy working for the firm. And so they should be. They have a non-contributory final salary pension scheme after three years’ service; a bonus, which was 14% of annual salary for each member of staff this year; a range of holiday and leisure facilities to use; and an ever-increasing number of clubs and societies to join as members.
And the company is, by most measures, a great success – posting gross annual sales of £8.7bn and an operating profit of £393m in the year to 28 January 2012.
Protecting the vision
One way in which John Spedan Lewis sought to protect his vision was to create the position of partners’ counsellor. The counsellor’s role is to ensure that the partnership is true to its principles and compassionate to individual partners – being completely open with the chairman about anything he ought to know for the good of the partnership and alert to anything about which the staff might reasonably complain, and then immediately taking steps to put it right.
The counsellor is also the person who is tasked with looking out for – and taking steps to secure – reasonable opportunities to improve partners’ working conditions and amenities.
The current partners’ counsellor is Patrick Lewis – the great nephew of John Spedan Lewis. Patrick Lewis believes that the high level of staff and partner engagement at the John Lewis Partnership is partly down to its employee-owned structure – but also down to the culture of the firm.
He says: “Being co-owned, to me, is the rock on which our engagement, the very strong service and commercial results that the partnership delivers are based. But it is about much more than just ownership. What ownership does is that it provides the backdrop.
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