In 1864 a young man called John Lewis opened a small drapers store on Oxford Street. He was 28 years old and on his first day of trading he took 16 shillings and fourpence. That shop, which still abides by its original slogan, Never Knowingly Undersold, is now 150 years old and is a £4billion international business.
The store is planning several events to mark its anniversary but for me the most interesting is a range of exclusive products by some of the best known designers in the world (including Wegner, Eames and Ercol) as well as pieces by some of the most interesting and upcoming British designers of recent years.
The story of the store has been told in this beautiful cloth bound book which includes samples of material, a copy of the plans of the Peter Jones store as well as the John Lewis constitution and details of the anniversary products such as the ercol chair above which has been made in a limited edition fabric especially for the store. It is one of 200 special editions that have been made for the anniversary.
As many of you will know John Lewis is run as a partnership and right from the start Lewis signalled his intention to do things differently. At the time most drapers worked to a 33 per cent profit on the selling price (which was about 50 per cent on costs). He chose to make a profit of 25 per cent and insisted that the customers benefit from the good purchase price.
It wasn’t just in business that he was forward thinking. In 1884 he married Eliza Baker and paid for her education. She went on to become one of a very small number of women to be accepted to Cambridge University. She came top of her class but at the time women were not allowed to graduate so her education finished there.
In the store, Lewis was so determined to use every available bit of space that he had plaster removed from the walls to gain a few extra inches of display area.
Lewis’s son, John Spedan Lewis, joined the family firm and on his 21st birthday in 1906 he was given a quarter of the business, by then valued at £50,000. But he became increasingly uncomfortable by the knowledge that his annual income of around £26,000 a year was considerably more than the company’s entire wage bill for its 300 staff members, which came to around £16,000.
During a two year convalescence from a riding accident, Spedan decided he had to find a way to share the company’s profits with its employees. He realised that if the business were made into a limited liability company it could distribute profits in the form of shares.
His plans were carried out and John Lewis is still run as a partnership today. As he said in 1954: “If all the profits of British industry were ploughed back into its own efficiency, there would be an important increase of all but the topmost incomes, especially perhaps those of minor managerial posts. Would not their occupants work to an important extent better? Workers tend to be highly paid if they are efficient, but do they not also tend to be efficient because they are highly paid?”
Hear Hear! Happy Birthday John Lewis.