BERNARD MILLER had the unenviable task of succeeding the brilliant maverick businessman John Spedan Lewis at the helm of the co-owned John Lewis Partnership. But as a torch-bearer for the ideals of industrial democracy, there was no one better suited to the role.
While studying Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford in the early 1920s, Miller had been fascinated by the 19th-century industrial experiment of the social reformer Robert Owen. After graduating, he met the charismatic Spedan Lewis, who was running two London department stores, the original draper's shop set up by his father, John Lewis, in Oxford Street in 1864, and Peter Jones in Chelsea. Spedan Lewis's vision for an employee-owned business struck a chord with Miller.
He was bowled over by the young Lewis's explosive energy and conviction, and saw a chance to play a part in his "great idea". He found himself in tune with the notion that the happiness of the workers was more important than maximum return on capital. He joined the embryonic partnership in 1927.
Miller quickly became one of the inner circle of gifted individuals who worked with Lewis to cement his ideas for employee ownership and translate them into a legal constitution for the partnership. The so-called First Trust Settlement, under which Lewis transferred his shares to trustees for the benefit of the employees, was signed in 1929.
Miller brought tremendous organisational skill and practical leadership to Lewis's vision - he was a highly effective administrator who had the ability to convert theories into commercial and democratic reality. Throughout the 1930s the John Lewis Partnership was developing from a small personal business constricted by the personality of its creator into a retailing force and a new form of industrial society - Miller was at the heart of the transformation.
During the years of the Second World War, he played a pivotal role in holding the business together. Many of the partnership's senior managers had been called up, trade was extremely difficult, and John Lewis in Oxford Street suffered heavy bomb damage. After the war, Lewis devoted his energies to refining the partnership's constitution, and Miller effectively ran the day-to-day affairs of the business. In 1950, the year in which Lewis transferred his remaining shares to the trustees under the irrevocable Second Trust Settlement, he announced that Bernard Miller would succeed him as chairman in 1955.
The challenges were immense. Galloping inflation had preceded the Korean War, and the partnership had to reduce prices heavily afterwards to get rid of stock. In the aftermath there was no bonus to share out among the employees, and managers endured pay cuts in 1952. To compound the difficulties facing Miller, Lewis found it almost impossible to let go of his creation when he retired, and subjected his successor to constant criticism - much of it public. …