Pressure mounts for vote on John Lewis

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The Independent Online
A MEMBER of the central council that controls the affairs of the John Lewis Partnership has called for a formal discussion on the future ownership of the group. The question has been submitted for discussion at the next meeting of the John Lewis council, which meets on 20 September.

The councillor will call for a debate on the possibility of selling the business in a move that could net each John Lewis worker a pounds 70,000 windfall. The councillor will also ask whether there are any plans to hold a referendum to give staff the chance to vote on the issue.

John Lewis has so far refused to put the matter to a staff vote. Chairman Sir Stuart Hampson has said: "There will be no sell-off under my chairmanship."

However, pressure is growing within the business for management to be more responsive to staff views. In letters this week to the group's staff magazine, The Gazette, several staff members call for modernisation of the group, saying its old-fashioned, inward-looking attitude is putting the business at a commercial disadvantage.

They express disillusionment at the performance of the John Lewis department stores. They focus on management's reluctance to extend opening hours, accept credit cards and make the stores more responsive to customer needs. There is even a call for the head of the department store division, Brian O'Callaghan, to be replaced.

One letter says: "I feel that the partnership has reached a watershed as far as the department store division is concerned. We are not serving our customers."

Another letter states: "The department stores are in desperate need of reinvigoration or they will become the dinosaurs of the high street... Perhaps the time has come to appoint a new director of trading who can rekindle the spirit and provide the forward thinking and drive so urgently needed."

In response, Mr O'Callaghan admits the division has traded poorly for the past 12 months. But of a potential move to seven-day trading he says: "Oh, that it was so straightforward. In truth, a sweeping change of this kind would have serious implications for our profitability for as long as we remain a full line department store business."

The company also said it had no immediate plans to change its opening hours or accept credit cards. Weekly trading figures yesterday showed department store sales last week were up by 9.6 per cent on last year. Waitrose sales rose by 6.8 per cent.