Tony McDonough meets DAN COOKE, managing director of John Lewis in Liverpool One
HAD DAN COOKE pursued his original career ambitions he may well now have been attending grisly murder scenes on a daily basis dressed in an all-in-one white suit with a hood.
The managing director of the John Lewis store at Liverpool One had originally wanted to become a forensic scientist and to that end he studied chemistry at university.
But a part-time job at Debenhams in Sheffield during his studies fired up Cooke’s passion for retail and thoughts of a career as a crime scene investigator were put to one side.
However, possibly thanks to his scientific background, the 38-year-old now utilises his eye for detail on the shopfloor of the flagship John Lewis store in Liverpool.
For many years John Lewis’s home in the city was the George Henry Lee building in Church Street now occupied by Rapid Hardware.
It had the feel of an old-fashioned department store – almost like Grace Brothers from the 1970s TV comedy, Are You Being Served.
So when it was announced the chain was to vacate the site and become the anchor tenant in spacious new premises in Liverpool One there was a fear among some that the old warm welcome would go.
However, Cooke believes, the affection for the outlet among its traditional customer base remains intact.
“I have not picked up any sense of customers from the old store not liking what they see in the new store,” said the father-of-one who took up his post in March last year.
“There is a lot of heart about what people felt about the old George Henry Lee but I don’t think they are disappointed with what they have here.
“I still hear people on the shop floor sometimes talking about how they are in George Henry Lee even though they are in the new store.”
John Lewis can be described as something of a retail phenomenon in the British high street.
For more than 100 years its “never knowingly undersold” approach to quality products and customer services has seen it thrive through the toughest times.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, the UK retail sector has endured a torrid time with high-profile casualties – electricals chain Comet being the latest example.
But the John Lewis success story goes on. At the time of writing its 30-strong chain of department stores had just reported record weekly sales of £109.6m.
This was 19.6% higher than the previous week and 11% up on the same week in 2011.
The Liverpool store, which employs more than 600 people, enjoyed a 5.7% sales rise in the first half of this year and is the fifth-best performer in the group.
Cooke puts much of the company’s success down to its partnership structure.
People working for the company are known as “partners” not employees and all have a stake in the business.
This, said Cooke, means most regard it as more than just a job.
He said: “Working with partners is key. In every decision you make you are always thinking about what impact that has on people here.
“That is probably the fundamental difference between us and other businesses. We involve people in the planning process.
“This is what I was looking for when I joined. Having worked in other businesses I know you can be very much driven by different factors.
“It could be the City or the share price and decisions are made based on those outcomes. Yes, there are considerations for people who work in those businesses but it is not the driving force that it is here.
“For other retailers, the number is usually the end game.
“Here it is more about helping people to develop – it is very rewarding to see people that have moved on who you have helped.
“Because the partners own the business they want to be involved and they do really know their stuff.
“More than a third of the partners here have 10 years’ experience or more and there is a desire and a want among people to help to drive the business forward.”
Cooke, who has worked for other retailers including Debenhams, Peacocks and Blacks Leisure, says his own style of management is not hierarchical and fits in well with the John Lewis ethos. He added: “I like to think I am open, honest and down-to-earth. I am not into hierarchy – I am a team player who gets people to think for themselves and gets them involved in the conversation. I need that input from partners – 600 heads are better than one.
The partnership has been in operation for 100 years and we are working on it all the time. This is a long-term thinking business.
“I would like to say I am pretty efficient and do delegate but I want to know that something has been looked at to the right level of detail.”
Despite the responsibility of heading a large retail operation, Cooke spends as much time as he can on the shop floor talking to other partners and to customers.
“I like to just serve on the shop floor and hopefully I just look like any other partner,” he said.
“I will try to help as much as I can but then I will have to go and get one of the partners who will know far more about the products than I will.
“I don’t go on the till – am not sure the partners would appreciate me doing that,” he laughed.
“Some of the partners will say I’m obsessive about looking at everything through a customer’s eyes.
“I want to know about the service or how quickly we can get the stock on the floor – can they find out what they are looking for quickly?
“I will then speak to department managers or operations managers to see where we can improve things.
“For me the brand is built on the service and the trust and that is crucial to the success of the business.”
Cook was born and brought up in Sheffield and through school and into university he still held on to the ambition of working in forensic science and studied Chemistry at the University of Sheffield.
But after graduating, Cooke decided on a very different direction.
“I went for some chemistry jobs and I found that it was not something that came naturally,” he said. “I had to work damn hard to get the degree.
“I only like to do stuff that I’m good at so I decided at that point not to pursue it as a career.
“I had a Saturday job with Debenhams when I was at university and after I graduated I started working there full-time.
“They had a graduate recruitment programme but I decided not to go into that. I had been there six months already and I decided I wanted to work up from the bottom.
“When you are not from a retail background you have to learn about how trends and fashions can change so quickly and how placing things around the store differently changes the performance of the brand and the interest you get from customers.”
Cooke was with Debenhams for 10 years and worked in Sheffield, Leeds, Lincoln, Manchester and managed a store in Birmingham.
When he was 30 he left the company. He realised he could easily spend the rest of his life working there and wanted to seek a fresh challenge.
“I really fancied working as an area manager so I joined Peacocks and I ran the Newcastle area for them. I moved down the Merseyside and than a position came up with Blacks Leisure for regional director.”
He joined John Lewis in 2010, undergoing a six-month induction at stores in High Wycombe and the Trafford Centre before taking the helm at Liverpool.
He is now gearing up for the busy Christmas trading period. The branch received more than 1,700 applications for 182 temporary festive jobs.
Cooke said: “The branch seems to be moving forward and I think that links in with the success of growth of Liverpool.
“Christmas is a different kind of busy. At other times of the year there is a lot of development work. But this time a year it is great – I can stop the meetings and get on the floor.
“If you don’t like Christmas and you’re in retail then you’re probably in the wrong job.”