Blackwell hands ownership to employees

Privately-owned book chain Blackwell plans to follow in the footsteps of department store John Lewis and hand ownership of the company to its staff, it was revealed today.

The proposal comes as the 130-year-old bookseller announced the closure of its Oxford head office and the relocation of staff to its stores. Some 25 jobs are at risk of redundancy under the cost-cutting measures.

Owner Toby Blackwell, the last representative of the Blackwell family, said he was setting up an employee partnership, following the John Lewis model, that will hand control to the company's 949 staff. The move should be completed by December.

He told Bookseller magazine: "I believe that every single one of our people is important, and can, if respected and encouraged, contribute ideas to make Blackwell's more efficient and innovative.

"I have therefore decided to emulate the highly successful John Lewis - and Waitrose - share partnership structure for Blackwell's. I have been studying this in detail and practice."

Blackwell shares are currently split into two classes, A and B. The controlling A shares, which are worth no money but have all the voting rights, are all owned by Mr Blackwell.

The current change concerns the B shares, the wealth shares, which Blackwell is giving to the employee partnership.

Cost-cutting measures come after several years of losses for the bookseller, which hopes to return to profit in the financial year 2011/2012.

Traditional booksellers are facing increased competition from websites like Amazon, and electronic reading devices such as the Sony e-reader.

Book chain Borders closed down last year, while Waterstone's, owned by retail giant HMV Group, has reported declining like-for-like sales.

Blackwell's first shop was opened on Oxford's Broad Street in 1879 by Benjamin Henry Blackwell.

In the 1990s the business expanded, opening a shop on London's Charing Cross Road and was the first UK bookseller to go online, in 1995. Last year it introduced the Espresso book machine, which prints books on demand in the shop.

The firm now has 37 permanent shops and 40 that open temporarily on university campuses at the start of each term.

The company owned a publishing arm, which it sold in 2007 to rival John Wiley, which was renamed Wiley-Blackwell.