The 150th anniversary of any British business is cause for celebration, particularly in a landscape where we’ve become used to so much change.

The 150th anniversary of any British business is cause for celebration, particularly in a landscape where we’ve become used to so much change.

“There are few retailers that don’t look to John Lewis for inspiration”

Chris Brook-Carter, Editor-in-chief

But this great milestone for John Lewis resonates particularly strongly for British retail, not just because of all the organisation has achieved during a century and a half, but because of what it says about the sector’s future.

Whether in marketing, customer service, omnichannel or product development, there are few retailers that don’t look to John Lewis for inspiration. And its role as a benchmark is illustrated by how we all devour its weekly sales figures for guidance on the industry’s direction of travel.

Much has been made of the strength of the John Lewis model. It is a business owned by its colleagues and lauded by politicians and commentators alike for offering an example of an alternative, inclusive form of capitalism.

Since John Spedan Lewis introduced the ownership structure in 1929, motivated by his ideals of social justice, the partnership has leveraged the strength of its collective. And managing director Andy Street argues that the model has been key in allowing the business to adapt to the seismic changes that have taken place in the sector since 2008.

Yet, as the travails at the Co-operative demonstrate, the mutual model alone doesn’t guarantee success. Neither does it truly account for either John Lewis’s longevity or the extraordinary leadership it has demonstrated in the harshest retailing environment in the sector’s history.

While the structure John Spedan Lewis established gave the group a framework that has allowed it to excel, it’s the values with which he underpinned his vision – values the business had resolutely clung on to – that have been at the heart of the organisation’s ability to adapt and thrive.

In an increasingly saturated retail market, brand values play an ever more important role in the fight for consumer attention. But few businesses are as clear or as focused on their sense of self as John Lewis.

Commitment to the customer, value and the ongoing pledge to balance short-term commercial success with the long-term interests of the partners continue to galvanise staff and customers alike.

These birthday celebrations have also given us a chance to delve deeper into the motivations of John Spedan Lewis, revealing a ruthlessly competitive retailer, unafraid to embrace radical approaches to business – guiding principles that continue to ensure John Lewis remains one of the UK’s most admired businesses. Happy birthday.

  • Chris Brook-Carter, Editor-in-chief