Store's staff go to war

John Lewis calls its employees 'partners', but the paternalistic chain of stores is denying them a pounds 100,000 windfall. Emma Cook reports
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The Independent Online
REBELLION ISN'T quite the word that leaps to mind when you amble through Trewins, a John Lewis Partnership store in Watford, Hertfordshire. Crushingly conformist, yes. Sturdy and functional if not a little stuffy, most definitely. But staff dissent amid the genteel and closeted world of Jonelle brushed cotton sheets and Windsmoor woollen separates? Unthinkable, surely?

Not if the John Lewis Partnership staff gazette is anything to go by. A hotbed of employee dissatisfaction, the magazine, distributed to all staff, this month published letters expressing outrage that staff are been denied any say in a proposal to float the company on the stock exchange. According to City experts, John Lewis is worth about pounds 3.5bn. A flotation could bring windfalls of some pounds 100,000 each to the Partnership's 39,000 staff.

Not surprisingly, the shopfloor workers find the idea rather attractive. The management is less keen, because it sees itself as the guardian of John Lewis's special ethos. Last week the top brass redrafted the Partnership's constitution to try to prevent "demutualisation". Sir Stuart Hampson, the chairman, warned employees any attempt to demutualise it would be futile - the business is owned by a trust and is not a mutual like building societies, he claimed - an assertion that could possibly be the subject of a legal challenge should any staff seek to force a ballot on the subject.

John Lewis is a unique and deeply paternalistic company. When John Spedan Lewis inherited the family business in 1928, he decreed that the relationship between employer and employee should mirror that of doctor and patient and decided to run it as a co-operative. Staff at John Lewis (the stores operate under different names in different towns and cities) and its sister chain Waitrose are all "partners", sharing the profits in generous annual bonuses (up to pounds 15,000 for ordinary staff, more for the bosses, according to one ex-employee).

The company also owns more than 4,000 acres of land in Dorset, Hampshire, Berkshire and the Lake District. The Leckford estate in Hampshire includes a profit-making farm which supplies Waitrose with mushrooms and apples.

Now the staff relationship seems more like parent and petulant teenager. The gazette outpourings speak for themselves. "My pay I can only describe as a pittance. I would love the chance to have pounds 100,000 - I don't socialise as I can't afford to. I work in a dead-end job with no scope for improvement," signed an "embittered partner". Another writes: "Why are management acting like banana despots ... sneering down at the rank and file as they strike a contemptuous 'we know best' attitude?"

Generally, though, staff are still extremely well treated - some say at the expense of the stores themselves. After 25 years they can enjoy six months' paid leave. They are also among the best paid on the high street. Some critics suggest that the stores benefit the staff even more than the customers with their inflexible opening hours - some close on Mondays while John Lewis is the only large store on Oxford Street to close on Sundays. Some would say such habits hint at a mood of complacency.

Yet John Lewis is only too aware that many of its shoppers take comfort in the tired decor of, say, the Peter Jones branch in Sloane Square, a bit like relaxing on their favourite scuffed settee. Others feel it is high time to modernise. One City analyst said: "They're helpful, above quality staff but still they always seem to be asking each other when they're going on a tea break. It's not exactly hurried in there, is it?"

Yet the John Lewis Partnership tries to make a virtue of its Grace Brothers image. It prides itself in its "never knowingly undersold" policy; an honest, old-fashioned store where your grandmother could have shopped for buttons. But just because your mother still goes there for her fitted curtains isn't a guarantee of loyalty, as Marks & Spencer's current problems demonstrate.

Back at Trewins in Watford, there are the usual acres of soft brown carpet, shiny cream linoleum and sensible waterproof anoraks; all adding to a creeping sense that time stood still somewhere back in 1971. In this time warp, some distinctly Nineties views made themselves heard. One partner whispered: "It's not exactly a democracy, is it, whatever they try to tell you? They didn't even ask our opinion. We've all been spoken for."

Another "partner", looking around nervously, said glumly: "This company's too old-fashioned. It's time they changed it. In the last place I was in, they had shares instead of a bonus scheme and that was more profitable. They say everything's decided by committee but it never seems to be us that's asked." Out of nowhere, the manager of the store hovers. "Oh God, that means I'm in the dog house," says the partner and creeps away towards haberdashery.