Monday, 4 April 2022


Forty years ago Tom Peters, a renowned management consultant, writer and speaker, co-authored a book called “In Search of Excellence.” It caused something of a stir as Peters assumed the pioneer role of excellence-discoverer.

In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-run Companies | Robert  H Waterman Jr, Tom Peters | 9781861975942 | AwesomeBooks

The book suggested that excellent businesses had specific attributes: 

…”flat anti-hierarchical structures; innovation and entrepreneurship; small numbers of corporate and middle management; staff reward systems based on contribution rather than position or length of service; brain power rather than muscle”. 

It sold 4 million copies and was described as the best management book of all time. Sadly 40 years on we seem to have learnt nothing. We haven’t forgotten excellence we just never seem to have known precisely what it is or how to get it.

John Neil, the CEO of Unipart, the multinational logistics, supply chain, manufacturing and consultancy company, once said to me

“the trouble with British Industry is it doesn’t know what good is.”

Forget excellence, he seemed to suggest, being good would be a marked improvement.

Conversation Agent - Valeria Maltoni - The Trouble with "Good Enough"

Instead of excellence we learnt about being the “lowest cost producer”, of moving production to wherever to get goods made cheaply and cut labour costs. MBAs talked about “exits”(not physical ways out but monetary ways out) or, to be blunt, selling businesses for as much money as possible to regardless of whom they are. That’s why the most excellent of restaurants – the Wolseley Group – majority owned in Thailand by Minor Hotels having put it into administration have ousted that King of Customer Service. Jeremy King, its founder. 

It's Jeremy King v. Richard Caring at London's Famed Wolseley - Air Mail

No, I’m not xenophobic but it’s wasteful to build an excellent business and then sell it to corporations (mainly overseas) whose interests are purely about money, burnishing their image or whose cultural values are so strongly at variance with their acquisition. That’s why in-shoring has become a new vogue  (it means bringing production back home), that’s why Waterstones (currently Russian owned but left well alone by him) run by the excellent James Daunt of Daunt Books, does so well. Under the previous management, I was told they talked about skus (stock keeping units) not books, and it drove staff in the stores crazy.

When so many companies in the UK are parcelled off to foreign business or private equity, firms whose raison d’être is lots of money, it’s unsurprising that the focus has shifted from rock solid, immutable values about product excellence and customer service.

Julian Richer Archives - Retail Gazette

One place where this hasn’t happened in Richer Sounds. Founded in 1978 the business was 100% owned by Julian Richer, the founder and managing director of the company, who in 2019 sold 60% of its shares to an employee ownership trust. It’s feted for its customer service and standards of management.

Seeking to become just another big ‘cheese’ is also relatively absent in the food business where founders are obsessed with quality. The TV chef James Martin is particularly appealing in his appetite for excellence and singles out the French:

“What I love about Lyon is they don’t care what people think about what they do or if they even like it, they know, they just know themselves that it’s brilliant”

On a TV programme he wandered around Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse - Lyon Indoor Food  Market” talking to camera, ecstatic about the supreme excellence of the food there.

Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, Gourmet market, Lyon, Rhone Alps, France  Stock Photo - Alamy

The French care jealously about Comté cheese and the right Cassoulet recipe. The Italians are similarly fussy about Spaghetti Carbonara.

Their ROI is in heaven. Their being excellent matters more than being rich.

How ironic that Julian Richer in denial of his name, like so many chefs, could be much richer but instead leads an excellent UK business. 

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