Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The food chain

In today's BBC News web site there is a story about a pelican that horrified locals and tourists in a London park by suddenly picking up a pigeon in its beak. The pigeon spent a traumatic 20 minutes in the beak (or is it bill?) before the pelican decided to swallow it. What a horrible way to go.

Apparently pelicans normally only eat fish, so this pigeon was particularly unlucky. However, even in the midst of tragedy there is always something comical about pigeons.

Further up the food chain, Britain's second largest specialist chain of bookshops, Ottakar's, has been bought by the largest one, Waterstone's. The takeover happened in July and like the pigeon, Ottakar's has spent an uncomfortably long time in the jaws of its captor before being devoured. However, the last branch will be converted to Waterstone's within the next few weeks and Ottakar's will cease to exist.

Within the current economic climate, the takeover of Ottakar's seems to make sense. It is unlikely that Ottakar's would have continued to function as an independent bookseller in the face of growing competition from internet retailers and the supermarkets and in that context, this is the best possible outcome. But as someone who has spent ten very happy years working for Ottakar's, I feel a great sense of loss. In some ways, I would rather have gone down with the ship.

Ottakar's was a very unusual company. One outside observer said that it was more like a religious cult, as the morale was extraordinarily high and most of the employees were fiercely loyal to the point where, until recently, the staff turnover amongst managers was almost zero. There were many reasons for this, but the root of Ottakar's success was the ethos of its founder James Heneage.

Sadly, this photo portrays a rather severe and pensive man, rather than the eccentric, warm, humorous and occasionally outrageous person that I knew. However, the Dalek in the background gives the game away.

James Heneage created a company culture in which individualism was celebrated and every employee felt valued. He knew that the staff were his greatest asset and strived to create a structure which gave as much autonomy as possible to the hundreds of bright, overqualified staff that he employed. In most businesses I can think of, dissention is seen as a threat. In Ottakar's I always felt that any idea that I had, however bizarre, would be treated with respect if I could provide a decent argument to support my views.

Waterstone's is not quite the evil empire that some have tried to portray. With a few notable exceptions, most of the people I've have met so far seem perfectly okay, but it is a much larger company and I know that I am now a small fish in a very big stream.

(November 2008 - Two years on, over two-thirds of the Ottakar's managers have now left Waterstone's)

1 comment:

MarkFarley said...

Oh, but my dear Steerforth... they did taste so good with a nice bottle of Claret.