WHAT must bankers think when they view John Lewis? There they are, pocketing millions of pounds from an employer that was either directly or indirectly bailed out by the taxpayer. And there's Charlie Mayfield, the John Lewis boss, collecting a salary of Pounds 800,000 and an 18 per cent bonus -- the same rate as all the other 75,000 staff or "partners" in the retailer -- giving Mayfield slightly less than Pounds 200,000, the sort of sum that a senior banker would regard as derisory.
Yet this is the same John Lewis where bankers' wives shop for their fridges and washing machines, the John Lewis that owns their favourite Waitrose grocer. Like the rest of us, they love the fact that the group's staff are older on average than elsewhere, have stayed longer and are more informed and caring.
They flock to the slogan, "Never knowingly undersold", surely one of the smartest come-ons ever, coined 70-odd years ago by John Spedan Lewis, eldest son of the John Lewis who created the partnership.
Bankers are probably aware of some of the details about John Lewis that create the camaraderie between customers and staff. The outlets don't play loud music and don't go in for screaming promotions. All staff are "partners" and everyone uses the same facilities (there are no lifts or eating areas reserved for senior management). The in-house paper, the Gazette, contains letters to the high-ups from partners with this or that complaint in a way which would not be tolerated in a City firm.
Staff get a 12-25 per cent discount on goods they buy. When they retire, they are paid a final-salary, non-contributory pension. They can avail themselves of a panoply of centrally negotiated offers for holidays and theatre tickets. There are John Lewis Partnership leisure and sports societies. After 25 years' service they are entitled to six months' paid leave. And John Lewis grows organically, not via acquisition.
And what growth. Sales at the department store and Waitrose group rose 10.6 per cent to Pounds 8.2 billion in the year to the end of January. Profits climbed by the same percentage, to Pounds 431 million (allowing for bonuses to staff of Pounds 194.5 million, a 28 per cent rise, averaging at Pounds 2,500 each). Mayfield aims to double the size of the company in the next 10 years, including extending online home-delivery to 27 countries, among them the US and Australia.
For two years running, Waitrose has been the fastest-growing supermarket chain (in the face of competition from the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury). In 2011, Waitrose will open another 25-30 convenience stores, 10 full-size supermarkets (including two more where I live in south-west London, where I already feel surrounded by them).
Waitrose is powering ahead on the internet, via its own service and with Ocado. It has got tie-ins with Heston Blumenthal and Delia Smith. The intention is to drive revenues to Pounds 10 billion by 2020 and achieve a market share of 8-10 per cent, twice what it has today.
Some Pounds 50 million of the cost of the group's expansion programme is to be met by customers. In a happy merging of corporate ambition and loyalty, employees and shoppers …