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The Story of the John Lewis Partnership

Fifth in a six-part series by Peter Cox, an East Finchley author.

When Spedan Lewis retired in 1955 his Partnership was only just starting to recover from the damage done by the war to the Oxford Street shop.  His shrewd successor, Bernard Miller, appointed to lead the shop’s revival a man who’d left school at 16, without the university education of those about him.  Stanley Carter was a firebrand, a retail obsessive whose explosive outbursts became legendary (and wouldn’t be tolerated in the business today…) but whose root-and-branch overhaul at the Oxford Street shop not only doubled its sales in five years, but, more crucially, multiplied its profits by a factor of five.  Carter’s merchandising skills were copied elsewhere in the John Lewis empire, profits rose – and everyone’s annual bonus with it – and money became available to brighten up tired old John Lewis department stores dotted around the country.

But the tiny Waitrose arm, bought in 1937 when its ten London suburban shops (there was one in Muswell Hill) took a meagre 4% of the Partnership’s total sales and barely made a profit, was languishing.  Grocer’s shops in the 1950s still looked like that wonderful relic still operating in Muswell Hill today, W Martyn, which still has its original fittings.   Waitrose shops were larger, but similar, although they’d begun to be converted to self-service.  If the clever people who ran the Partnership then had a flaw, it was that they were all dyed-in-the-wool department store men.  Food was a different game, and they really had no idea what to do with Waitrose.  On several occasions, in fact, it was nearly sold.  Once the suggestion was rejected by its part-time financial adviser, Roy Jenkins, later to be more famous for his sweeping liberalising reforms as Home secretary in the Harold Wilson government of the late 1960s.  Preventing Waitrose from being sold off was a minor footnote to his career but of crucial importance to the modern Partnership.

In 1967 the Chairman Bernard Miller asked Stanley Carter to give Waitrose one last chance, and he took to it with a will.  In the following six years he transformed it with his compulsive energy, doubled the number of shops from 25 to 50, and bringing a clarity of vision and the uncluttered look he’d grown up with in John Lewis.  His successors continued to move Waitrose decisively upmarket, with an increasing focus on fresh food.  Then after a tricky period in the early Nineties, when its major competitors broke the unenforced Sunday trading laws – the morally upright Partnership wouldn’t countenance breaking the law until Sunday trading was legalised – Waitrose overhauled its supply chain and its technology and began its reputation for punching way above its weight.  Largely responsible was the ebullient ex-RAF man David Felwick (the Partnership had a history of recruiting bright officers leaving the forces) who led the business in the 1990s.

It was in that period that its current larger-than-life MD, Mark Price joined from John Lewis as its marketing director, a new departure for a publicity-averse business that had never advertised.  Price soon changed that, and oversaw an early move to Internet shopping.  A massive expansion ensued that led to over 270 supermarkets at the last count (and a small presence once again in Muswell Hill on the way) and a continuing series of awards for best supermarket.

Next month – how John Lewis department stores overcame its stuffy and outdated image after 2000.  Peter Cox’s book Spedan’s Partnership – the Story of John Lewis and Waitrose – can be bought for £20 at all good bookshops, and at £15 incl P & P from his website www.spedanspartnership.co.uk.

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