Change, Resilience & Trust: Q&A with Simon Fowler, Chair of Aquascot Board (Part 2)

The second half of our Q&A focuses on driving change and keeping an open mind — best practices can be found in less than obvious places.

This is the second part of our Q&A session with Simon — Part 1 can be found HERE.

At John Lewis, one of your responsibilities was overseeing the Partnership's weekly magazine, The Gazette, which is the longest running in-house publication in the world. Have you had a chance to read our own in-house bulletin, Fish Tales? Any notes?

I have and it’s interesting to see all the information that it contains. When I looked after the John Lewis Partnership’s Gazette, my team and I went through a whole programme to reinvent the way the Gazette was put together. I’m sure we’ll have this in mind at some point for Fish Tales. No communication channel ever stays the same, it has to evolve to suit the needs of its audience and the way the audience wants to take on information. Over time we identified that the Gazette needed a refresh to suit the needs of our current generation of Partners.

By way of background, the Gazette is a printed, full-colour magazine, published every week, on a Friday, in hard copy and sent to every business unit in the JLP. It therefore has to appeal to over 80,000 Partners. Its role in sharing knowledge with co-owners is as important as ever, but in an increasingly 24/7, digital world, the Gazette needed a refresh to suit the evolving needs of our Partner audience.

When we researched how well the Gazette was read, we found readership numbers were lower than we had anticipated. Partners told us they were time-poor and preferred to spend their breaks on non-Partnership social media, rather than reading lengthy articles about our business. They preferred a livelier, easy to read magazine, with shorter, smarter, snappier content. They told us social media offered them more accessible content in small, bite-sized chunks containing pictures, images and videos that helped to tell them news stories in a more compelling way. Importantly, what they accessed felt relevant to them.

We had already started to experiment with different approaches to cover stories and presenting news content and for many, some of these more entertaining approaches had encouraged them to pick up the Gazette for the very first time. We had to grasp this insight in order to engage with an even wider Partner audience, more often. We needed a rethink on how to deliver fresh, exciting and relevant news content, in a new bite-sized way.

Alongside this, we also wanted a refreshed Gazette to return to a more independent journalistic approach. One where my team of journalists would choose which stories to run and how to position these alongside any requests they received to include articles about important business information from members of the Executive Team. The Gazette journalists would therefore report objectively and fairly, holding management to account to encourage healthy debate where appropriate.

Using this feedback, we redeveloped the whole of the Gazette and in 2018, we launched a new look which had a more simplified and streamlined way of presenting the Partnership’s news, using jargon-free language.

Whilst we continued to produce a hard-printed copy, we also significantly enhanced our digital format. We aimed to ensure each full Gazette publication was in easy to navigate sections, covering a number of key themes of information with Partners. We settled on six consistent pillars.

  1. News – news updates on the business, information that Partners needed to know about key matters happening in their business.
  2. Trading Information – providing information on how the business was performing and giving an insight on top lines sales in John Lewis and Waitrose.
  3. Investigative Features – thought-provoking features on relevant and current topics. For example, we published a feature on plastics and Blue Planet, which was hugely popular. We also ran items on the 7 Partner Networks, which offer advice and support on issues from gender diversity to parenting to religion. At all times, the key focus is making sure these features are both relevant and relatable to Partners.
  4. Partner Opinion & Comment – our reader letters pages are widely read and play a key role in supporting Partners to hold management to account. Partners are able to write letters on any topic – positive or negative - as long as they are courteous and not defamatory. The importance of Gazette letters is written into the JLP Constitution and requires that any Partner who writes a letter should receive a reply from the most responsible member of the Leadership Team within 3 weeks.
  5. Leisure & Wellbeing – this covers leisure benefits that are offered to Partners at discounted rates by external providers. We also run articles on Partner wellbeing and health.
  6. Showcasing Partners – each week we feature a different Partner. This enables Partners to share a little bit about themselves that their colleagues might not know: their interests outside work, who they most admire, their favourite John Lewis and Waitrose products, etc.

We keep this format and the features in the Gazette pretty constant in each edition, and as part of the refresh, we also reduced the page count, which helpfully managed to save some money in the process.

I think our Fish Tales publication looks good. I would just encourage us to think constantly about the publication from our readers’ perspective. That way we always remain alive to the evolutionary steps that might be needed in order to remain interesting and relevant to our Partners.

In an EO business, we need to demonstrate that we are different in a good way to other forms of doing business. Our communications must also do this by being open, transparent, authentic and trusted. These are some of the hallmarks of good communication and help Partners understand what’s happening, why it’s happening and, more importantly, how they can help make a difference.

"Businesses are also better served when people have diversity of thought and can share different views and different opinions rather than having a homogenised, single view of the world."

One of our key focuses in the next few years is to bring more new talent in and really solidify ourselves as a great employer in the region. How important is it to balance the experience of long-service partners with the fresh ideas of young people coming into the business?

I’ve always believed that people and organisations do well when talent and capability grows. In most organisations, there is a careful balance to be had between the benefits of growing internal talent vs recruiting external talent. I think this is a healthy approach and given most organisations will experience people turnover, it’s sensible to have a talent strategy that encompasses the benefits of both – bringing in new recruits with different perspectives and growing internal talent. An employee-owned business is like a family, and most families are always stronger for growing through both new internal and external arrivals. Businesses are also better served when people have diversity of thought and can share different views and different opinions rather than having a homogenised, single view of the world.

I think maintaining a core element of knowledge and culture within high performing people who have worked in a business for a long period of time is helpful. In Aquascot, long-serving Partners will play a really valuable role in this respect. However, flexibility and a willingness to change are also important qualities for long-serving Partners, given the business and the way we work needs to evolve and change over time. This often requires curiosity and bravery. Recognising that change is a constant, and that no matter how long you’ve been in an organisation, changing and being prepared to change the way in which you do things are really valuable qualities.

"Moments where you test the cultural strength of an organisation are the moments that demonstrate whether it’s got the right level of resilience and sustainability."

It's been a challenging couple of years for all, and we've worked hard at Aquascot to ensure continuous operation and safety across the business. In your experience, what kind of lessons can be learned from this kind of adversity?

I think moments where you test the cultural strength of an organisation are the moments that demonstrate whether it’s got the right level of resilience and sustainability. The pandemic, for all its challenges, demonstrated that in our business each Partner knew their role and played it brilliantly. Partners rose to the challenge and in many cases, went above and beyond what was expected. I think this demonstrates that all the best foundational elements exist within Aquascot as an EO business, and these have really come to life over the last couple of years.

There are many organisations that didn’t survive the pandemic. Many failed because their levels of employee engagement and their processes weren’t good enough. I therefore think Partners should be hugely proud of the fact they managed to deliver such good results for Aquascot when many other businesses failed to keep up. It’s good that life is beginning to get back to a little more normality, although I think we are all going to have to recognise that this will be a ‘new normal’ for everyone – nothing will ever be quite the same again.

We’ve learned a lot over the last 2 years and this, along with feedback and insights from Partners, means we’re now in a position to launch a new strategic plan this year. Following the important publication of our re-defined purpose last year – ‘Nurturing wellbeing for all’ – supported by our new values and principles, the Board and I have been developing this next phase of our strategy. Our plan is called ‘Aquafuture 2030’ and is intended to provide us with a strong foundation for the future success of our business. Alongside our purpose, values and principles, it will deliver on our ambitions for continuous commercial improvements, our focus on meeting our environmental goals and our commitment to being a great employee-owned business, valued by our Partners, our community and our stakeholders.

We will share more detail on the content of Aquafuture 2030 over the coming months, so every Partner is clear on our plan, and the role they will need to play in helping to deliver it.


"Everyone is doing a great job and this is clear just looking at what people are doing and how they’re doing it. Partners really care and that’s tremendous to see."

Have you had a chance to meet with Partners in person?

I went on a tour of the production sites and offices last year and will make a point of spending time out and about in the business every time I come to Alness. I last visited in March, when I walked both sites and met with Partners.

I enjoy experiencing the pace and energy on our sites – everyone is doing a great job and this is clear just looking at what people are doing and how they’re doing it. Partners really care and that’s tremendous to see. Great skills, great energy and great focus.

Stay tuned for the next part of this Q&A with Simon.

Follow Aquascot on LinkedIn and Facebook for the latest news, recipes and information from the Scottish seafood people in Alness.

Interviewed by: Justine Fourny (Category & Marketing Officer)

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