Three- legged race

THE history of experiments in industrial democracy has not been a particularly happy one. Take National Freight Corporation, the former state-owned trucking company bought out by its employees in 1982. For a while it was a model of employee democracy, and many of its 30,000 employees enriched themselves enormously, both through the shares and generous profit sharing arrangements. Even after the company was floated in 1989, 83 per cent of the shares were held by employees.

Now, however, the proportion is down to 11 per cent. The shares have halved in value in a year. In December, the profit-sharing scheme was axed. And the former glamour stock has fallen from grace, amid boardroom strife, thinning margins and deserting customers. NFC is virtually indistinguishable from a conventional company.

But while NFC is on the hard shoulder with the bonnet up, there is better news from Britain's only other large worker co-op, the John Lewis Partnership retail group. As we report on page 5, Waitrose, its grocery arm, is starting to turn round after a grizzly decade being outwitted by the big quoted supermarket groups.

The annual bonus - the key measure of the health of JLP - is almost certain to be lifted from last year's 10 per cent when it is announced in March. That is good news for the 38,000 employees or "partners". The bonus means £1,000 or more for the humblestshop assistant. But it is also sweet music for Waitrose, whose detractors were writing it off as recently as two years ago.

The pessimists' case was that the company was mortally hampered by its corporate structure. It couldn't raise money on the stockmarket like its competitors, which tapped shareholders to finance the huge expansion of superstores. Decision-making was slowed because of the need to consult staff, hence a snail-like pace of innovation.

It is early days yet, but the performance of the last few months suggests the scoffers are wrong. Waitrose seems to have found a new lease of life. But John Lewis cannot afford to be complacent. Department stores are hardly a growth area. Food retailing will never again enjoy the boom times of the 1980s.

The group would be mad if it weren't thinking about growing a third leg.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Guru Careers: Application Support Analyst / 1st Line Support

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Application Support Analyst / 1st L...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

£45K - £55K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a full stack .NET D...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence