Thursday, September 09, 2010

Break Free from the Chains!

I was giddy like a schoolgirl when I read this article in the Guardian (UK) by Julia Finch about the bookstore chain Blackwell turning into an employee-owned firm. I know, right?! There is a model in place in the UK, as a major department store, John Lewis, has already made this move, and found success with it. In fact, as Finch states,
The John Lewis partnership has proved more resilient than many of its rivals in the recession and research by the Cass business school says there is evidence that staff-owned firms performed far better than shareholder-owned firms.
Put that in your capitalist pipe and smoke it.

The model will work this way, 81 year old chain owner Toby Blackwell explains:

He and two long-standing associates will retain control of Blackwell's A shares – the voting shares, which have no dividends attached. They will be placed in a trust. The B shares, or wealth shares, will go into another, employee, trust.

"No one will own shares," said Blackwell. "There will be an annual bonus, paid out of profits, and the chairman will get the same percentage [payout] as the part-time lady on the till in a store."

I'm not going to pretend like I fully understand this arrangement, though I'd like to think I could if I had it explained to me slowly. But the more important question becomes, for us here at SotB, could such a scheme ever work with our whiny chain bookstores?

I wondered this aloud, as it were, over at Ted Striphas' blog, and he responded. Pop over and see for yourself.

I know it won't happen. Borders and Barnes & Noble are much larger than Blackwell, which has only 37 permanent shops and 40 that open temporarily near college campuses. Compare that with 700+ B&Ns. And having worked at both Borders and B&N, I can tell you that any independence you sense is just an illusion. Each shop is controlled from above and every story manager has pretty tight orders.

But the article states that employee-owned businesses have happier employees... Now that would be a sea-change. I know there are always stories about people who love their local chain store and have great experiences with staff, but I also know - and have seen - some truly miserable people working at these chain stores. And I know as a cashier at B&N, it was hard to always be happy when I knew that, at the end of my shift, I would have to count out my drawer and then stand at a dry erase board, writing down the exact difference between my actual count and the receipt (manager: "in the first space, put '-25 cents'"), the amount of returns I processed (was it somehow my fault they returned merch?!), and the number of B&N memberships I sold (manager: "In the last place, put... ZERO.") It was degrading and insulting, for me and often for the manager.

But hey, I don't want to be all fa-la-la, employee-owned means never having an unhappy employee again. I know that's simplistic, but I also know this is an interesting turn-of-events at a chain bookstore that is getting little to no play here in places where the futures and fortunes of B&N and Borders are discussed ad nauseum.

Are we, as Striphas suggested in response to my comment, just afraid of anything that sounds the least bit socialist in this country? If so... egads, man.

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