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.