Retail entrepreneur Julian Richer showed the retail industry in the best light when he passed control of his business to staff last week.

Richer’s gift to his employees made headlines for days and was welcome respite from news about CVAs or the ‘death of the high street’.

His generosity epitomises why he won the Alix Partners Outstanding Contribution to Retail award at the Retail Week Awards sponsored by Salesforce in March. It was the latest in a long line of his initiatives that have helped to shape the industry for the better.

From the provision of holiday homes for staff to the description of the them as ‘colleagues’ – Richer was perhaps the first to use that now ubiquitous term – he has blazed a trail in ethical business and earned himself a fortune of £160m at the same time.

People power

Everybody wants to make money, but what sets Richer apart is how he has chosen to make his fortune.

It’s founded upon his conviction that success rested upon the performance of the people he employed, and that he’d get the best out of them if he treated them well.

As he told Retail Week in March: “I say ‘it’s all about the people’ in order to serve the customers, right? You can’t get your staff to give great customer service if they think you’re just a greedy bastard and you’re screwing them every minute of the day.”

“All retailers can learn from Richer’s enlightened self-interest and pick up practical ideas”

Richer’s approach is evidence that, as technology transforms retail, great people remain a powerful differentiator.

His people helped him adapt to retail’s online shift – the famously “helpful staff” along with “excellent prices” has consistently won accolades from Which?

His way of doing business is in tune with the times too. No retailer will do well if they fail on the basics but, while it may often be overstated, consumers increasingly seem to be viewing companies through the lens of values as well as value.

If they don’t like what they see, the threat is that they will go elsewhere. As Neela Montgomery, the former Tesco executive who now runs US retailer Crate & Barrel, said at last week’s World Retail Congress: “If you do not reflect your customer base in your management, that’s a very dangerous place to be.”

Not all retailers could follow Richer in passing ownership to their employees, nor should it be seen as a norm. But all can definitely learn from his enlightened self-interest and pick up practical ideas.

Progressive stance

The industry has a great track record in engaging and rewarding people at all levels.

The John Lewis Partnership pioneered the way and retains a unique business model, but there are many other examples. Richer’s ideas were deployed in the legendary turnaround of Asda by Archie Norman, and again now at Marks & Spencer.

Timpson has a famously people-focused culture, while Dixons Carphone has launched an employee share ownership scheme under which eligible colleagues will receive at least £1,000 of shares. That’s in recognition of the fact that “capable and committed colleagues are our number one advantage” and “the best assisted selling to customers requires super-helpful colleagues”.

“Today, doing good is becoming an ever-more important ingredient in doing well”

It’s not just the people agenda that is driving retailers to take progressive stances. Iceland managing director Richard Walker put it well in a tweet when his position on palm oil was questioned, when he said the “assumption that business serves only to chase profit is no longer valid”.

Walker maintained: “A business is now many different things to many different stakeholders: taxpayer, employer, corporate activist and philanthropist among others.”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making money or making a fortune. But today, doing good is becoming an ever-more important ingredient in doing well.