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Sunday, 9 November 2014


My review of this book appeared in Tribune in May, 2011

Spedan's Partnership: The Story of John Lewis and Waitrose

Spedan's Partnership - The Story of John Lewis and Waitrose
by Peter Cox

Labatie Books

I have had a retail management career for nearly four decades and it has been impossible not to spot the good, the bad and the ugly sides of an aggressive industry, the price wars, the bitching and backbiting in the supermarket sector, the controversial battles for town centre survival as well as a benevolent side that tends to be suppressed.  It is popular to see big retailers as villains, even though they employ substantial workforces and generate eye-watering sums of money for the economy.  There will never, ever be universal agreement on the impact and influence of retailers and retailing, but one company seems to have found widespread appeal for how it delivers its business mission and values.  John Lewis department stores and Waitrose supermarkets, parts of the same John Lewis Partnership (JLP) group, are lauded for more consistency than any other retailers as the standard bearers of high quality, employee involvement and excellent customer service.  In the research for my own book, “Retail Confidential”, I kept a customer experience diary and JLP left the rest of its competitors trailing behind.  There seems to be more of a genuine spirit about John Lewis and Waitrose employees, probably for a very distinctive reason – the employees are partners in the business, enjoying cash bonuses and other privileges.  When employed by JLP, there is both an incentive to work hard, succeed and be rewarded as well as an expected commitment to honour the values of a business that began life over a hundred years ago.  The visionary was not John Lewis himself, but that of his son Spedan who was uneasy with his father’s wealth and the comparative pittances earned by his employees.  Spedan, once his father retired, set a financial sharing plan in place and the foundations were laid for one of the great retail stories of all time.  Spedan said: “For the first ten years of my working life one of the most important of my occupations was an effort to see where my father had been right and where he had been wrong. I came to the conclusion that his ideas were sound….but the practice was a very different matter.” Spedan nurtured a unique democratic business structure that demanded great customer service, value for money, scrupulous honesty and a wide assortment of products, all delivered by the best people available.  Peter Cox has written in painstaking detail and with a lot of affection about the company in which he worked for forty years.  His book is essential reading for retailers and customers to help both understand that every now and then the industry produces a genuine visionary with sincere motives.  This fascinating retail history and handbook is the best I have ever read.

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