Living up to the rhetoric -1
The contrast between the rhetoric of seduction and the subsequent enforcing iron fist raises the question of whether the large clients who were advocating partnering lived up to their own rhetoric. The influence of the big supermarkets on the promotion of partnering to construction has already been noted, as has their understandable desire to exercise increased con. trol over the construction supply chain. It is especially ironic that the industry task forces behind the two partnering reports published in conjunction with the Reading Construction Forum (Bennett and Jayes, 1995. Bennett and Jayes, 1998) were both chaired by Charles Johnston of Sainsbury. This was the same Charles Johnston who chaired the CIB work¬ing group which produced Partnering in the Team (Construction Industry Board, 1997). Mike Thomas of Whitbread also served on the two working groups that produced The Seven Pillars of Partnering (Bennett and Jayes, 1998) and Partnering in the Team (Construction Industry Board, 1997). For those who enjoy a good misguided conspiracy theory, the raw materials are all in place. But this is not the position which is being adopted here. Messrs Thomas and Johnston are singled out only to illustrate the way in which ideas are mobilised and legitimised across inter-organisational networks. It is categorically not being suggested that they were some sort of devious manipulators who influenced the reports to their own advantage. The point has more to do with the way power and knowledge become subtlety conflated. Charles Johnston and Mike Thomas simply rode within the same flux of ideas that many others rode within, and the present author claims no special immunity.
Nevertheless, it remains true that the big supermarkets were often cited as exemplars of the partnering ideal. In light of this it is pertinent to recall that during 1999 Sainsbury, Asda, Tesco and Safeway were all under inves-tigation by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). The investigation followed sustained complaints by farmers and growers that consumers were not benefiting from low farm prices. The outcome of this eight-month inquiry was that the entire £60 billion a year grocery sector was referred to the Competition Commission (previously the Mergers and Monopolies Commission). The OFT’s Director General expressed a particular concern regarding the supermarkets’ buying power and their exploitative influence over suppliers:
‘I have had concerns for some time … that this power may become exploitative and the many responses from suppliers during our inquiry suggests that it is something which needs to be looked at by the Competition Commission.’ (OFT, 1999).
Ironically, these were the same supermarkets which were at the time preach-ing ‘customer-responsiveness’ to the construction industry. The possibility that their supply chain management practices were directed towards earn¬ing super-normal profits, rather than serving the interests of their customers strangely had little effect on their perceived legitimacy as ‘enlightened clients’.