Cool, calm and collecting plaudits at John Lewis

Written by Gemma Charles on 22 April 2015 in Features

After years in the game, John Lewis Partnership's public affairs chief Charlotte Cool recently secured her biggest lobbying win to date


Charlotte Cool might just be the most popular employee in the John Lewis Partnership right now.

The public affairs chief for the group covering both John Lewis and Waitrose scored a lobbying win which recently had a direct positive effect on the pay packets of her colleagues.

After years of lobbying, Cool achieved what she refers to as her “biggest achievement”, persuading the Treasury to reinstate tax relief on profit-sharing bonuses up to £3,600 for workers in employee-owned companies.

Over coffee near the partnership’s Victoria headquarters, Cool reveals that she’s focused on the tax relief issue since joining the business in 2006 as its first ever public affairs professional (she now holds the title of group head of corporate affairs). Doing the rounds and meeting her new colleagues, many recalled how their bonuses had been untaxed in 1990s and expressed this as something they would like her to change.

“It feels great,” she says when asked how it feels to have scored this particular victory. “There have been other things that have saved the business millions of pounds here or there but are not really visible but this was very tangible.

“I created this cartoon telling the six-year story complete with caricatures of the politicians involved which has gone around the business,” she adds.

Another important victory Cool points to, though one which probably sits in the ‘saved millions but not quite as sexy’ category, is the five-year battle against a relaxation of planning law as recommended in the Barker review.

“This was concerning because a lot of our shops were built in city centres where it’s harder and more costly to build shops. We were worried that if the planning regime said ‘do what you want’, we’d get lots of cheap out of town big glass boxes competing directly and really hurting our sustainability,” Cool explains.

During the last two years of the last Labour government, Cool got to a “really good place” on this issue but found herself back to square one with the coalition. But working with Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, who embarked on large-scale planning reform and “doing the groundwork with the people writing the script” saw a ‘town centres first’ approach built in to planning law, the desired outcome of the JLP.

“That’s what I love about this job,” she comments. “These things can take five years and then you can get somewhere but then it can change. You need to do the persuasion, the case-making and the relationship building but I do believe that if your cause is right and your arguments are right you can get there.”


Young Labour set

While Cool is guarded about her personal politics - intriguingly, the two politicians she would like to get stuck with in a lift with are Stella Creasy and Boris Johnson - her history has a rich New Labour vein running through it.

She read PPE at Balliol College, Oxford, at the same time as the likes of Yvette Cooper, Kitty Usher, James Purnell and Stephen Twigg who would go on to become leading lights in the Labour party.

“Jo Johnson was there as well but he was in a different set,” she jokes.

After graduating she went to work for the organisation that is now Liberty as a researcher and from there got her first break into politics, becoming a researcher for the Labour MP Graham Allen. Then she went on to work for Tony Blair’s election campaign that led to the stunning landslide of 1997.

“We had no idea it was going to be such a landslide,” she says reflecting on those days. “During the election I was working out in the central region, around Nottingham. We were working ferociously hard on ten seats and actually in the end those ten came in by a mile and loads of others did too that we hadn’t even thought would.”

But keen to get into the business world, Cool moved quickly into the broadcasting industry after Labour’s electoral success. Her links forged at university and during her time spent with the new political masters were equivalent to gold-dust as corporate UK had got used to successive Tory governments and weren’t sure how to communicate with the New Labour lot.

“I was valuable in a way I hadn’t realised,” she says. “I was still young but I could talk the lingo. Industry needed to change the way they talked and needed to tap into a new way of thinking and expressing themselves.”

Her ten years in broadcasting saw her hold public policy and communications roles with Viacom, the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television and the UK Film Council. Before joining the John Lewis Partnership, she had risen to the position of executive director of the Commercial Broadcasters Association.

Looking back on her ten years in the broadcasting industry she said the issues felt “big and exciting” but the scope was so much more narrow compared to retail where you “pretty much need to interact with everyone” as the policy landscape spans most government departments.


From east to west

A native west Londoner, Cool lived in the capital’s trendy Hoxton area in the east but returned west to raise her family and now lives in Shepherds Bush with her husband and three children.

“Once I had my first baby I did feel too old and unfashionable to be in Hoxton,” she laughs, jokingly bemoaning that where she was once the go-to person in the family for recommendations on hot new places, the mantle has very much passed to her younger sister.

Her children, two girls and a boy, were born during her time at JLP so her identity as a working mum has been shaped in her current role. She feels that the change can be “quite hard to navigate” and has been involved in helping mentor women on maternity leave and setting up a women’s network.

Outside of JLP, she is also chair of the employee-owned midwifery mutual Neighbourhood Midwives, which aims to give women a positive experience of childbirth supported by a trusted midwife.

Soon after her interview with PAN, the party manifestos are released. While there are no firm figures involved, Cool will no doubt have been heartened to see this commitment in the Liberal Democrats’ offering:

“[We will] encourage employers to promote employee participation and employee ownership, aiming to increase further the proportion of GDP in employee-owned businesses.”

One of the partnership’s aims is to see the so-called ‘John Lewis economy’ - employee-owned companies - grow so that 10% of businesses are employee-owned (currently the figure stands as 6%).

Labour and Conservatives party manifestos, however, make no mention of the issue.

So while it seems there is still some way to go for Cool on this issue, given her past record on tackling seemingly intractable challenges, you wouldn’t bet against this dogged campaigner turning this one around as well.


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