Run a business as a partnership – it can be done.

There is a thoughtful analysis by Simon Caulkin of just how differently the department store and the supermarket chain John Lewis does business called Partnership pays off for great British eccentric in yesterday’s Observer.   

Imagine a company whose ultimate purpose is ‘the happiness of all its members’; has a written democratic constitution of which the above is the first principle; is a partnership whose members undertake to treat each other, customers and suppliers with respect, honesty and courtesy; and has just decided to pay its top manager no more than 75 times the average basic rate of non-management members – in effect reducing the theoretical maximum.

Needless, to say, it’s probably too much to expect that anybody will be daring enough to consider following John Lewis’s lead. British industry, in my experience, has never paid anything more than lip-service to partnership of any kind. For one thing, most working managers have told themselves that they are too busy managing to be bothered making helping partners to get their side of the business right.

I have worked in motor manufacturing for something like 35 years, and in that time I have seen how so-called partnerships work when European and American managers are in charge and the best that you can say about it is that it’s a joke.

What generally happens is that the manufacturer takes on a so called partner to carry out functions that the manufacturer is no longer capaple of doing. Once the partner has been chosen and the contracts have been drawn up the manufacturer proceeds to treat partner as a subservient entity which must live up to the “terms of the contract” and who has very little to say about how things can be done better or even done well. As I say, it’s a huge joke that makes me glad that I’ve only got a few more years to go before I can leave it all behind. 

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