By Alex Brummer
In a class of his own: Sports Direct's Mike Ashley
Sports Direct, with its crowded racks of gaudy semi-designer leisurewear, big queues at the tills and in-your-face marketing, may not appeal to the chattering classes.
Indeed, the public is more likely to decry the desecration at the group?s flagship Lillywhites store in central London rather than offer a peon of praise to the group?s burly deputy-chairman and founder Mike Ashley.
But when it comes to getting the best out of a retail workforce, Ashley is in a class all of his own.
A brilliant performance by the company in the year to the end of April saw sales leap by more than 20 per cent to ?2.2bn and profits climb 40 per cent to ?207m.
The company?s remarkable bonus arrangements for ordinary employees means two-thirds of the workforce of 3,000 ? some of whom are earning as little as ?20,000 a year (well below the Government?s current welfare cap of ?26,000) ? will be given a packet of 12,000 shares, currently valued at ?76,500 at yesterday?s share price. For many of the young people manning the stores that should be more than enough to allow them to climb the housing ladder.
Ashley, who owns 64 per cent of the stock, is a little less fortunate in that institutional investors have stamped on his incentive package that on the current performance would have paid out a ?26m.
But with the share price up 90 per cent and a handsome dividend to pay there will be few tears for the boss at St James? Park next season.
There is a broader point here. Sports Direct and John Lewis are at opposite ends of the commercial spectrum.
Ashley?s company is resolutely mass market and John Lewis higher-end.
But both recognise the value of giving the workforce a big stake in the ownership of the business and it works faultlessly.
If other retail groups were to follow the same model, and count ordinary workers not just the executives into incentive arrangements, they might, too, find big improvements in performance.
All the data shows the UK economy may finally be on the mend, and we will learn more about this on July 25 when the second quarter gross domestic product, or output figures, are released.
What will be of most concern to policymakers is that the UK has an unbalanced recovery, even if that is better than no recovery at all.
The latest Bank of England and Council of Mortgage lending figures point to a tale of two economies. The housing market is in take-off mode with lending rising to ?15bn in June and mortgage approvals at a 41-month high. It looks like Funding for Lending and the Help to Buy scheme are really working, and that is before the next injection of cash, the mortgage guarantee scheme, comes on stream.
In stark contrast, the Bank?s lending data shows that net new loans to small and medium-sized enterprise (SMEs) ? a driver of growth for the economy ? showed a fall of ?4.5bn in the three months to June.
It is fashionable for the banks, and City analysts, to blame the lack of lending to SMEs on a shortage of demand rather than supply.
But is that really the case? The fact that the shutters came down on supply in the immediate aftermath of the crisis ? and are still down at Royal Bank of Scotland ? have drained the confidence of SMEs, and even the prospect of low interest Funding for Lending money has not yet restored the faith.
Much was made earlier this week of the Monetary Policy Committee?s decision to suspend quantitative easing for the time being.
That may well reflect a view on Threadneedle Street that the money created is not getting through to the right people.
The Bank and its new governor, Mark Carney, have a delicate path to steer between making the banks secure and ensuring that the SME sector knows they are open for business ? and not just for home loans.
Last year?s failed merger attempt with BAE Systems, not to mention the recent difficulties of Boeing with the Dreamliner, have sharpened the focus of EADS.
The German government, which feared Anglo-French dominance, together with the nationalist minded French, finally look willing to cede some state interference in the way the group is run.
As part of the modernisation process, we are now told that it is considering ditching its long-winded traditional name, European Aeronautics Defence & Space Company ? which reads as if it were invented by a committee ? and replacing it with the simple brand Airbus.
With eurozone military spending on the wane, and EADS sitting on a potential ?523bn of civilian aircraft orders, that looks sound.
It is far better than a government- engineered merger with BAE.