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.