Profits, partners and personalisation... The John Lewis story

As iconic department store John Lewis celebrates its 150 anniversary, The Journal looks at where the Newcastle branch fits in

 

Mother and daughter Kerry and Hayley Barton both work at John Lewis in Newcastle.

Nothing unusual about that, of course - until you learn they represent the third and fourth generations of their family to be drawn to a career at the iconic department store, celebrating its 150th anniversary this month.

It started with William Cecil Murray, who joined Newcastle’s Bainbridge store - later acquired by John Lewis - at the tender age of 14 and spent 46 years working a chauffeur for the family behind the business.

Eight more individuals, on both sides of Hayley’s family, went on to work for the company, and while Hayley isn’t quite sure what the connecting factor is, she has own story about what drew her to the business and kept her there.

“I enjoy coming to work and meeting the customers and other partners,” said the 26-year-old.

“It’s a nice place to work and I feel comfortable in my job.

“Before I came here, I had every little confidence, but it’s totally brought me out of my shell.”

Similar tales abound at the branch, which shows an uncanny knack for holding on to its employees.

There’s Chris Dunleavey in furniture, for example, who’s been there 48 years and Ian Gibb in floor coverings who’s racked up a total of 45. Val Fisher in stock management and Graham Fenwick in furniture take third place on the long service table with 44 years each, while Lesley Slavin in stock management follows closely behind with 43.

Even the branch’s managing director, Isabella Miller, is reaching 25 years of service with the company, with which she started as a graduate trainee. That’s good news for Isabella, since like all ‘partners’ - the name John Lewis gives to its staff, given it’s the UK’s largest employee-run firm - she’ll be entitled to six months’ leave on reaching the milestone.

And that’s just one of the perks enjoyed at the company, which has become synonymous with treating its staff well.

Most famously, there’s the annual bonus scheme, giving partners a cut of the profits. In March this year, after the John Lewis Partnership reported a 6.6% rise in sales to more than £10bn, for example, the 600 or so staff at Newcastle received a welcome boost worth 15% of their salaries.

There’s also a staff discount, a strong pension scheme, the chance to take time out to work for charity and numerous other benefits.

If this seems a radical approach these days, imagine how it must have seemed in the early 20th Century, when John Spedan Lewis - son of the original owner who took over following his father’s death in 1928 - set the tone for the firm with a number of forward-thinking initiatives.

The John Lewis story dates back to 1864, with the opening of the first store at Oxford Street, London, and as early as 1918, Lewis jnr - already owner of the group’s Peter Jones store - was telling shareholders of his intention to introduce a profit sharing scheme.

It was also Lewis who first established a representative staff council to embody the democratic culture of the John Lewis Partnership.

In the 1920s, he had the partnership’s first constitution printed and bought holiday homes for use by partners. After swelling the business considerably with acquisitions throughout the country, then, he signed the so-called Second Trust Settlement, officially confirming the partnership belonged to the people employed in it.

Lewis may have died in 1963 - a year before the first profit sharing bonus was given to the partners in cash - but his legacy lives on the ethos of the business, now chaired by Charlie May.

Newcastle came into the equation in 1952, by which point the city’s Bainbridge store had already accumulated a rich history.

First opening in 1838, the business - originally a drapers and fashion shop at 12 Market Street - was the result of partnership between Emerson Muschamp Bainbridge and William Alder Dunn, the latter of whom eventually parted company from the firm.

Bainbridge was known to be innovative and adventurous, stocking many items never seen before, such as sewn muslin dresses, an early form of ready-to-wear garments.

With a similar approach to Lewis, he also encouraged his customers to browse with no obligation to purchase, recognising this was a successful strategy as his turnover increased accordingly.

The department store is to believed to have been the first of its kind in the world - and hence a ledger from 1849 remains a prized document held in safe keeping at the John Lewis Heritage Centre.

It was also progressive in terms of expansion, with a second shop in Market Street opening in 1852, selling mens clothing, further premises being acquired in 1865 and a diversification into manufacturing in 1883, with a facility in Leeds producing clothing for the Newcastle store.

Bainbridge died in 1892, the business going to his sons, who safeguarded its success through the depression.

Joining the John Lewis Partnership in the 1950s allowed much needed investment into the Bainbridge store, which relocated to Eldon Square shopping centre in 1976, and became the largest John Lewis shop outside London.

Investment into the premises has been maintained since - even if its style has changed considerably - and, despite some tough economic times, it’s managed to keep up a strong trade.

“The business has always grown and one of the reasons for that is that we aim for customers to come into the store and have a really great shopping experience,” Isabella said.

“They have the convenience of the online side and can get what they want quickly and conveniently, but there are also features like the brasserie and the beauty retreat, where people can come and have a range of treatments.

“We also hold events like Clarins evenings and work very hard to make sure they are special.

“The partners are knowledgeable and have a good relationship with the customers.”

Indeed, the company invests heavily in training. Susan Bickle, community liaison coordinator, who has been with the group for 16 years, added: “I feel that John Lewis has lasted so long because of its excellent customer service and aftersales care, which is really well known.

“Partners working in John Lewis feel secure in their jobs, which is not something that can be said for everywhere.”

After hosting three days of entertainment at the start of this month, it will also be selling an exclusive product range to mark the milestone and running a range of charitable activities.

And will the store be around in another 150 years?

“Absolutely,” Isabella said.

“But we will never be complacent, rest on our laurels or take anything for granted.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer