Knight and Lee celebrates anniversary

Knight and Lee general manager John  Smith.'Picture: Ian Hargreaves (142022-5)
Knight and Lee general manager John Smith.'Picture: Ian Hargreaves (142022-5)

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It isn’t just the generous bonuses that keeps John Lewis partners happy.

The company, known for its employee ownership scheme, celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.

Knight & Lee in Southsea, one of only two John Lewis stores in the UK to retain its original name, has been owned by the company since 1940. Despite being completely destroyed in 1941 – see inset picture, above – the shop reopened 15 years later and remains a small department store.

The Palmerston Road store was founded by Jesse Knight and Herbert Soden Lee in 1887.

General manager John Smith has been working for the company for 30 years, mainly on the south coast.

‘I have worked in a range of departments, from the selling side and then as a branch manager,’ he says.

‘Day to day, my job is very multitasked.

‘I go around the site in the morning and meet customers. We are already working on the staffing for the Christmas period.

‘It is a very interesting job. There is always lots going on and to get involved in.

‘The really good thing about working for John Lewis is it is a big family. It is a sort of community.

‘Everybody works for each other. Everyone enjoys what they do and they really feel happy about their work.

‘There is a really strong sense of family.’

Many of the staff at Knight & Lee are dedicated to their jobs, with a number of people working solely for the company until retirement.

Over the years, retailing has evolved and responded to the growing demands of shoppers. Whether it is ordering in store, buying online, clicking and collecting, or buying in store, department stores are adapting to the changing needs of their customers.

Mr Smith says he believes John Lewis is at the forefront of this shopping revolution.

‘Retailing is constantly changing and it is now giving people lots of different ways to shop,’ he adds.

‘It is making it more and more interesting, but also meeting customer demand.

‘Being able to deliver and shop in lots of different ways is giving customers more and more choice. It is about being able to cater to what our customers want. It has changed an awful lot.

‘That is probably the biggest change and demand I have seen.

‘We have been really out there. We have been there with different ways for people to buy things for some time.

‘There are certain things that people want to come in and try out or feel before they buy.

‘There are other people who want to convenience of buying things online.

‘We are very fortunate that we have got a very strong shop presence in Southsea, and a very strong online presence. I think the big players for the future will be able to balance their high street presence with what they offer online.’

Nationwide, gross sales in the first half of 2014 were up 9.4 per cent to £1.87bn for the John Lewis Partnership, with like-for-like sales up 8.2 per cent. And operating profit increased by 62.2 per cent to £56.3m.

Online sales also went up 25.6 per cent.

The dream began when John Lewis opened a small drapers shop in Oxford Street, central London, back in 1864.

Nineteen years later, John Spedan Lewis, son of John Lewis, and founder of the John Lewis Partnership was born.

In 1905, John Lewis bought control of Peter Jones in Sloane Square - the only other John Lewis to retain its original name, aside from Knight & Lee in Southsea. In 1914, John Lewis handed control of Peter Jones to John Spedan Lewis who set up staff committees.

John Lewis’s death in 1928 saw his son take ownership of both stores. He converted the firm into a public company, John Lewis and Company Limited.

A chain of 10 shops called Waitrose was purchased in 1937 by the company.

Southsea’s Knight & Lee store was purchased in 1940. A year later, the store was destroyed in a bombing raid.

Fifteen years later, John Spedan Lewis retired as chairman of the company and is succeeded by Bernard Miller.

Waitrose opened its first supermarket in Streatham, south London.

By 1992, Waitrose had 100 shops across the UK. In 2000, the company opened Ocado, the online Waitrose service.

In 2001, John Lewis launched its own online shopping website.

The company is now one of the UK’ top ten retailers with 42 John Lewis shops and, 328 Waitrose supermarkets.

‘Everybody knows everybody here’

Christine Gover has worked at Knight & Lee for 46 years.

The 61-year-old finance clerk in the store’s cash office lives in North End.

‘Everybody asks what has kept me here for so long,’ she says.

‘It is just a nice place to work.

‘Everybody knows everybody here. You can’t have any secrets.

‘The company, John Lewis, is very professional.

‘I don’t feel like I have been here for so many years. A lot of things here have changed over the years. The shop has changed but it does not feel like I have been working here for that long.

‘I think if you are going to work in retailing, you can’t get a better employer than John Lewis.

‘When I started, we had the old tills. All I had to worry about was the pen and paper because all you had to do was write the amount down.

‘Retailing is still the same as it was. You have to sell to make profit for the company. There has been a big change in prices over the years.

‘We may have worked in the same place but there are an awful lot of changes going on all the time.

‘I started when I was 15 and started on the retail side and did about four years at college learning about retailing.

‘I stayed on the shop floor and then about 20 years ago, an opportunity came up to work in the cash office.

‘I really love that side of this business.

‘At the moment, we are taking on the work Southampton’s store used to do on our financial work.

‘We are going to take on all of our financial responsibility.

‘That is what I am working on at the moment.

‘We get to find out how much we are spending and how much customers are bringing in.’

‘The company looks after its staff’

KIM Cotterill is head chef at Knight & Lee. The 51-year-old from Havant has worked at the store for 33 years.

‘It is a friendly place to work. We all know each other and everyone is on first-name terms,’ she says.

‘It is a big community and we are part of Southsea. Everyone knows Knight & Lee.

‘The company looks after its staff. The bonus is a great reason to stay.

‘There is always a bit of a buzz before the announcement, and each department tries to guess how much it will be.

‘In the kitchen, the biggest change has been the menu and the changes in the restaurant. We used to have tablecloths and we had staff lay the tables up each day.

‘We had a washing machine and used to wash the table cloths. You could not imagine doing that any more. I think people sat down for longer and had more time back then.

‘People now just want to come in and eat something now and leave. They used to have three-course meals and we served them at the table. It is now an everyday occurrence to go out and have something to eat. There are a few new bits of kitchen equipment now, but mostly it is the same.’