John Lewis – the store loved by middle England and the marketing media is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the opening of John Lewis’ first drapery store on Oxford Street. However for me the man who merits more of the attention is his son Spedan Lewis.
An uncomfortable vision
Every spring in every John Lewis store, every partner, as employees are known, stops and gathers on the shop floor, in the office or in the warehouse. They watch one of their colleagues open an envelope. On a single sheet is printed a number. That number represents the percentage of their salary that each and every of them will receive as an annual bonus. Not surprisingly the event is nearly always greeted with a cheer.
This practice of equally sharing a proportion of the firm’s profits can be traced back, not quite to John Lewis, but to Spedan Lewis, his oldest son.
John Lewis was born in Somerset, England and became an orphan at the age of seven. He was subsequently brought up by an aunt, Miss Ann Speed. In 1864 he opened a small drapery shop, John Lewis & Co., at 132 Oxford Street in London. It flourished so John expanded, and the premises were rebuilt in the 1880s to form an all-encompassing department store
Now married John’s first son was born in 1885 and was named in honour of his aunt – Spedan. (It is the year the picture of Oxford Street was taken)
At 19, Spedan went to work with in the store and on his 21st birthday his father gave him a quarter-share of the business.
It was then that Spedan realised that he, his father and his younger brother Oswald earned more from the business than all of the other employees put together. It was something that made him feel very uncomfortable.
In 1909, Spedan had a serious horse-riding accident which meant he would not work again for nearly two years. However during the time he spent recuperating he clearly brooded on the inequality of the situation and developed a plan to revolutionize the business. His vision was for a business where success should be measured “By the happiness of those working at it and by its good service to the general community”
When he finally returned to work and now running his father’s second store, Peter Jones, in Sloane Square he started to turn his vision into reality. He shortened the working day, started a work committee and increased paid holiday time. He wanted work to be “something to live for as well as something to live by”. While his ideas are said to have caused a rift with his father, they appeared to work as profits increased.
After the death of his father in 1928, Spedan assuming control of the Oxford Street store too and in 1929 officially formed the John Lewis Partnership, and began the distribution of profits among its employees
He completed the move towards employee-ownership in 1950, with the transfer of control for the whole business to the employees.
Spedan Lewis resigned as chairman in 1955 but the legacy of his vision lives on.