John Lewis’ John Spedan Lewis

Lessons in Leadership from John Lewis

In 1906, a new Liberal government swept to power and social change was in the air. The working classes were in such a poor state of health that their productivity was being called into question. Meanwhile, John Spedan Lewis was conceiving a revolution in retail.

He was convinced workers in his family’s department stores were being treated immorally and in a way that hampered productivity. He cut working hours, provided paid holiday, set up workers’ committees and created an in-house magazine, The Gazette , which is still published today. His father, who founded the business, baulked at these changes and they fell out, refusing to speak for years. So Lewis took over the family’s Peter Jones store and ran it separately. The struggling store went from a loss of £8,000 to a profi t of more than £20,000 in five-years. Yet Lewis sought even more radical changes.

In 1920, having settled his differences with his father, Lewis set up a profi t-share scheme giving staff a cut of the spoils. He then enabled worker councils and drew up a company constitution. And still the business grew, acquiring Waitrose in 1937. And, in 1950, Lewis turned the company’s staff into partners. Today there are 26 John Lewis stores and 168 Waitrose supermarkets in the UK. More than 68,000 people are partners in the business, and all fulltime staff of its £300m plus profits each year.

What he taught us:
  • The customer relationship His phrase, “Never Knowingly Undersold”, became a benchmark for good value
  • Working conditions He showed that if you take care of your staff they will repay you in kind
  • The power of self-belief Because so many people said his ideas were too radical, he was determined to prove them wrong.
Factfile: Born: September 1885 Died: February 1963 Business career: 1906, acquired a quarter share in John Lewis; 1928, took full-ownership; 1950 signed the irrevocable Trust Settlement which distributed profits among staff. Tell me something I didn’t know: He formulated his ideas for partnership following a riding accident.




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