A rewarding partnership. Laura Whyte tells Mel Flaherty that John Lewis’ unique structure brings its own challenges, and rewards.
From immediately after the Christmas holidays until the Thursday of the first full week in March, the offices and shop floors across the whole of the John Lewis Partnership (JLP) buzz. While elsewhere workers often feel flat after their yuletide break, the 81,000 partners of John Lewis, who collectively own the business, have the announcement of their annual partnership bonus to speculate about and look forward to.
“It is lovely if you are in one of the shops that Thursday as the moment the bonus is announced, you will usually hear a whoop,” smiles Laura Whyte, Personnel Director of the John Lewis department store side of the business. Since 2000 there has been plenty to whoop about. While many other businesses have struggled to keep afloat, JLP has been able to pay out a bonus of between 9% and 20% every year. This year expectations are running high as week after week around Christmas the company kept smashing trading records, with some of the credit going to the hugely successful snowman TV commercial.
But he also had a deeper understanding of and appreciation of its success having Whyte says even something as positive as a bonus requires careful management: “We do have to manage those expectations and remind the partners that the bonus is based on trading throughout the year, and that our year does not end until 31st January.”
She admits that personnel directors at large plcs are not likely to have much sympathy with such a ‘dilemma’. The partnership structure at John Lewis does, however, add a unique dimension to Whyte’s role. Instead of being open to criticism from shareholders, her work is judged by all her colleagues across the whole division. She is totally accountable to the all the staff, all of whom are kept informed of everything happening in the group through The Gazette, JLP’s weekly in-house magazine.
“It makes you think through the more controversial stuff very carefully,” Whyte ponders. “The acid test for me is if I am asked by The Gazette why I have done something, can I write the answer? – If I can’t, or if I can but it doesn’t sound right, then maybe I need to rethink what I’m planning to do.”
Whyte says without a doubt the most challenging initiative she has had to implement in her 30 years at the company is the three-year ‘branch of the future’ programme for the department stores, rolled out from 2009 onwards.
This comprehensive overhaul of behind-the-scenes sales support services and customer contact strategy was designed to maximise benefits of scale and to future-proof the business in the wake of the massive rise in online sales. The changes impacted nearly 4,000 out of 29,000 partners on that side of the business and at the planning stage, Whyte and her immediate colleagues reckoned on an attrition rate among those affected of 50% to 75% through redundancy. Whyte obviously rose admirably to the challenge of keeping these partners on board with the changes – the actual percentage ended up at just 23%. “We supported people who wanted to stay and were able to redeploy many of them to the shop floor.
“I am fortunate to work for an organisation prepared to take the time to enable that to happen – if I worked for somewhere with shareholders I would have probably been asked to implement such changes much quicker and I am sure that would have meant much higher attrition levels,” Whyte adds modestly.
She also believes the strategy helped remove initial feelings of fear towards and competitiveness against online sales that she admits were prevalent five years ago. Now there is a broader understanding that the customer is buying from the John Lewis brand, whichever channel they use, and that each of these channels is complementary, even across brands under the JLP umbrella – for example, customers can now ‘click and collect’, ordering goods on the John Lewis website and collecting them from their local Waitrose store, which benefits from increased footfall and often extra spend too (this kind of collaboration is becoming more commonplace across the group and Whyte is increasingly working with her Waitrose counterparts).
The success of the branch of the future strategy is probably not such a surprise to retail industry watchers. After all, John Lewis has an admirably low average staff turnover rate of just 12% and normally gets 10 applicants for every job at branch level. No wonder – Whyte’s team are constantly implementing various programmes to attract, retain and develop talent. One of the more recent is the apprenticeship scheme for 16 and 18-year-olds introduced in November which, unlike at many other companies, offers successful participants a permanent job at the end. On the other end of the scale is the leadership team development programme, which in the space of a year has turned the 30:70 split of senior positions filled in favour of external candidates to 60:40 in favour of internal applicants.
Whyte says such challenges, plus the “omni-channel” evolution in the already fast-paced world of retailing, including not only online and mobile technology but also the development of new services such as John Lewis Insurance, has helped keep her motivated throughout her long career at the company.
That and the fact that she has tended to move roles every four years or so and has benefitted some of the personal development schemes promoted by the company. Whyte started with John Lewis in 1982 on a small, bespoke graduate training programme as an Assistant Registrar, helping to ensure the firm ran in accordance with its constitution as a partnership. Since then, her career path has meandered through various aspects of the business including a stint as a selling Department Manager at the Peter Jones department store. But there has been a constant draw to the people-focussed aspects of the partnership, which is what she has always loved, along with her other main passions in life – music (in fact after reading English at Oxford University, she spent six months as PA to the General Manager of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester) and horses (she is a fan of and participant in eventing and dressage).
Workwise, she spends about a quarter of her time working with Board colleagues, both individually and collectively; a quarter with her four Heads of Department in Personnel; 40% out and about visiting the shops and circa 10% at external speaking engagements, ranging from local government meetings to national industry bodies and educational seminars.
She loves her current job and while everyone else is buzzing about the potential size of the bonus, Whyte says she still gets a big buzz every time a new store opens: “I was at the opening of the new store in Exeter in October and when I was speaking to all the new partners there it made me hugely proud of what the branch team were doing. When the Branch Manager gave her speech, you got a real sense of a new community coming onto the John Lewis map.”
Last year John Lewis announced its intention to increase its portfolio of 39 shops to 60 by 2018. Many of these are likely to be the smaller format, 30,000 to 40,000 square foot John Lewis At Home stores, which are quicker to set up and for which it is easier to find sites. The more compact version of the department store, typically spanning between 70,000 and 100,000 square feet compared to the 200,000-250,000 square foot full size version, will also make up a number of the new openings, including one in Chelmsford next year. There are also plans to open a full scale department store above the redeveloped Birmingham New Street rail station in 2014.
On that basis, Whyte has a potentially very fulfilling few years ahead yet.