Everything I Know about Corporate Responsibility I Learned from my Dad

Now retired, my dad ran a small business for many years, tailoring and selling coats and dresses. He had a retail store with a small workshop behind it in Esher, a small village Southwest of London.

Dad employed perhaps a total of a dozen people at any one time.  Half in the store and workshop and the other half who worked from home.

I learned about corporate responsibility from Dad as I was growing up in the 1970s, before I knew there was a term for it.  Perhaps before there even was a term for it?

Everyone knew everyone in the village and many customers were also people you came across at your place of worship or social events. Looking after customers on even the most subtle levels was critical to your place in the community as well as to business. So was looking after suppliers. The trade was a small one. It didn’t help anyone for suppliers to go out of business.

The business was a key component of the local community, providing local employment, tax revenue, community involvement and contributing to a lively high street. The shop played its part as a spot for social gatherings too. As nearby residents ourselves, we were very aware of the interdependence between the business and the community. Neither would thrive without the other.

And Dad looked after his employees too. I used to visit some of his home-workers with him, to pick-up and drop-off work in the evenings. Sometimes Dad got involved in personal problems, helping them resolve legal issues that they were struggling with for example. I am certain that helping take a worry off their shoulders was both in the interest of the employee and of the employer.

As a small privately owned business owner, Dad was directly involved in the full range of  what we now formally call stakeholder engagement – employees, community, investors, customers, even local politics.  And he could chose the role he wanted his business to play in society; to combine profitable business with other less quantifiable forms of societal contribution, without having to prove the ROI.  Maybe sometimes there wasn’t even an ROI in a financial sense, but as an owner manager, that is a compromise one can choose to make.

In large businesses we have to work hard to maintain that direct relationship between decision making and local community impact. And when ownership and operational management separate in a public company, the degrees of separation are further distanced (although as I wrote in an earlier blog, sometimes they are ironically the same person wearing different hats). We partly compensate for this with transparency laws and regulation

But I suspect that I am going to spend the rest of my career grappling with how to take what I learned from the way my dad did business in a small privately owned company into the large public company model. Regulation and process take us only so far in recreating personal commitment.  I hope I can live up to the standards my dad and many other small business owners set.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

  1. Comments 6

  2. The Worden Report 9:39 am on June 30, 2011

    Modern CSR began in the late 1950s, so the term was around in the 1970s when you were picking it up from your dad. The term came from business practitioners (e.g. Abram) rather than from academics. I suppose this should not come as a surprise. I have just returned from a visit to Northwestern University, where I found a senior associate dean as a prof of corporate ethics even though business ethics is not his field (he admitted this to me). I was stunned and wrote the following essay because business schools may not be hiring credentialed business ethicists to teach bus ethics. See ... http://bit.ly/iHQHI6 Anyway, I like your essay on how you got interested in CSR. It sounds like it is essentially an extension of your dad for you. Very nice. I think being in business has to be about more than making money. Perhaps modern corporate capitalism has reduced to the latter.

  3. KevinMoss 12:30 pm on June 30, 2011

    Thanks for your comments and for keeing me hoest on the history of the term !

  4. KevinMoss 12:30 pm on June 30, 2011

    Thanks for your comments and for keeping me honest on the history of the teminology !

  5. Purvish Diwanji 8:11 pm on November 28, 2011

    Great perspective from CSR point. Love the part "sometimes there wasn’t even an ROI in a financial sense, but as an owner manager, that is a compromise one can choose to make". Incidentally most of the small biz owners like me in India run our businesses in a similar way though we are in the 21st century :)

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    […] Efficiency and, therefore, efficient use of resources is well served by size and scale, but size and scale is also a challenge to sustainability.  As populations of developing nations achieve acceptable standards of living and increased consumption, large scale efficient processes will be critical to delivering even basic needs within existing resources.  But larger organisations have greater degrees of separation – greater gaps between the customer, the shareholder, the resource, the employee, and stakeholders are fickle in their priorities.  While there is a lot to be learned about resource efficiency from a large organisation, there is much to be learned about true and balanced stakeholder engagement from a small family business. […]