NHS Trafford service reform lead Hannah Lowry reviews Spedan’s partnership: The Story of John Lewis and Waitrose by Peter Cox, and whether the NHS can learn from employee-owned businesses in retail.

It has been suggested that the NHS could become an employee-owned businesses, like John Lewis, for example. This book charts the history of John Lewis and explains the company’s unusual structure.

The first surprise is that it wasn’t John Lewis himself who designed the partnership model, but his son, Spedan.

Spedan gave his family business to his employees, via a trust, which enables them to share the profits by way of a yearly bonus, without being able to sell their stake in the business. Hence they are called ‘partners’ not ‘staff’.

Spedan believed that employees should be treated well. He provided amenities such as proper dining rooms, activity clubs and a subsidised holiday residence.

He actively recruited well educated and experienced people from outside the organisation, inspiring the best to join and stay to help him to bring his vision to reality. Spedan encouraged ‘criticism from within’, through a weekly staff gazette and surrounded himself with ‘strong minds’ who were able to disagree with him.

The partnership still aims to provide its ‘partners’ with ‘worthwhile, secure, and fulfilling employment and confidence in the way the partnership conducts its business’.

The book is thought provoking and well written, providing much to reflect upon, and an interesting comparison with the NHS. However, at 298 pages it is not a quick read, nor one you can dip in and out of for a spot of management guidance.

In terms of whether the NHS could become a co-owned business - given that anyone employed by the NHS pays for the “business” as a tax payer, and that most of us receive NHS care - isn’t it already?