DISCUSSION There are plenty of inspiring business stories out there – the best thing we can do is share them

by Michael Wise _______22nd August 2018
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One – if not the – best thing about doing this job is the potential it offers to meet people with something interesting to say. And that’s not to assume that ‘interesting people’ exist only in some gilded sphere, where conversation is always witty and original thoughts flow as freely as wine on a hazy summer Sunday afternoon. An underlying assumption of Tomorrow’s Company’s ‘Voices of Progress’ inquiry is that everyone has interesting things to say.

Take the voice of James Perry, for example. He runs a B Corporation – a type of for-profit corporate entity that includes positive impact on society, workers, the community and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals – called COOK, which manufactures frozen food. He also wrote an article for the UnHerd website that tells the story of Red, a kid he employs and who, to say the least, has not enjoyed the best start in life.

Naturally it’s an uplifting tale and you can’t help but immediately wonder how many stories like Red’s are out there. But like in all the best stories, James didn’t keep it brief. Instead, he went off on a tangent and spoke of how business has, in his opinion, done much the same thing:

“B Corps are a new, superior version of the limited liability company. The limited liability company is the most powerful vehicle invented by mankind. It is how we organise the capital that shapes the world and invents the future. But the structure we use was invented to help the owners of tall ships manage risk – and their liability was unlimited. When investors wanted to limit liability, they had to apply for a licence from the government, who only granted it if they were satisfied that there was a meaningful public benefit in exchange for society taking on the liability.

“Since then, limited liability became unconditional. And in the latter half of the 20th century, the notion that the limited liability company had a fiduciary duty to maximise profits for its shareholders became entrenched as a cultural norm in financial markets – and therefore business.

“Sadly, the orthodoxy of ‘maximising shareholder value’ has, if inadvertently, led business – especially institutionally owned business – to do only this, on an industrial scale. As markets have become more sophisticated, too much of business is driving our world towards catastrophe. Most of us are now waking up to the reality of acute planetary distress – climate change, ocean health, ongoing rainforest destruction – and social distress, evident in the gross inequality driving mass migration, and resulting in political shocks such as Trump and Brexit.”

James’s words – arresting and informative – struck a major chord when I read the article, a few weeks ago. ‘He’s on exactly the same page,’ I thought. I tweeted it out there immediately. It’s important to spread the word, even though Twitter can sometimes feel like panning for gold downstream from a sewage outfall.

But the really interesting thing is that, now that we’re on with our interviews, with stakeholders far and wide across the UK – ‘leaders’ and ‘everyday people’ – similar themes are already coming out: that businesses should pay greater heed to the concerns and rights of employees; that their roots should be planted much deeper into local communities; that the emergence of ‘corporate raiders’ over the last 40 years or so has, as a consequence of their push for greater ‘efficiency’, brought about greater atomisation and insecurity in society.

Of course, the picture is far more complicated than the above suggests: the rise of Amazon to behemoth overlord status is, right now, perhaps the clearest example of this. Okay, so they’re a bunch of you-know-whats because they don’t pay enough tax and they’re annoyed about the pesky humanity that currently exists in their workforce, which they’re doing their best to reduce to a Frederick Winslow Taylor-inspired minimum. But, by golly, isn’t the product just so damn good? Do we not get the business environment we deserve?

There is no full-stop to put on the feelgood story. Red will undoubtedly face more problems in his life, while Jeff Bezos will acquire the wealth of nations – unless, perhaps, his company is broken up. Who knows? Perhaps what’s most important are the small details: to hear stories like Red’s, James Perry and COOK’s, and those of our interviewees, and to share them.

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