John Lewis, the department-store group that is Britain’s largest unquoted company, is committed to ensuring the well-being of those who work for it. Its founder, John Spedan Lewis, had strong moral beliefs and was voted Britain’s greatest business figure in a BBC poll last year. Thanks to his vision, the company’s 60,000 employees are all partners in the business and share in its profits. In all, £68m of profits were distributed among them last year. Lewis opened his first draper’s shop in Oxford Street in 1864 and in 1925 introduced another pledge that has stood the test of time – that he would never knowingly be undersold. The company now has 26 department stores, including its flagship branches in London’s Oxford Street and Sloane Square, and 143 Waitrose supermarkets across the UK. It reported sales of £4,246m and operating profits of £180m for the year ending January 2003. Sales were split almost equally between the department stores and the supermarkets. In the past the two operations have been run separately, but the company is now experimenting with Food and Home shops, combining the pick of Waitrose and John Lewis merchandise. Two have opened in the past year, one at Canary Wharf in London and the other in Cheltenham, the spiritual home of John Lewis’s traditional no-nonsense, no-frills customer. The John Lewis Partnership is now headed by Sir Stuart Hampson, who was appointed executive chairman in 1993. In 1999 his shareholders asked him to investigate how the company might be floated on the stock market. Unfortunately for the carpetbaggers, Hampson explained that, along with all previous chairmen, he had to swear an oath on appointment that he would never investigate demutualising, and so Lewis philosophy lives on.
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