Martin Gibson - Head of Operations
There was a very interesting IoD Leadership Breakfast last week concerned with what made the Quakers successful in business. A talk by Revd Dr Richard Turnbull - Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics - set out the considerable business achievements made by many Quakers.
Revd Dr Turnbull started by covering some of the companies that were founded by Quakers. Of course, most of us know about the chocolate makers that started Fry’s, Rowntree’s and Cadbury’s. Quakers also were active in other manufacturing sectors, for example, setting up what is now Clarks. Then, of course, there is the financial institute that is now Friends Life. I hadn’t realised that Quakers were also essential in the partnership in Lombard Street which eventually became Barclays Bank.
Richard set out five key things that he felt were to the success of the Quakers. I won’t steal his thunder by listing them all here. One snippet that I will share was that Quakers generally led austere lifestyles and were prepared to suffer while waiting for success. Richard used the example of the Cadbury’s to illustrate this: the Cadbury family spent many years perfecting their chocolate making process before their business grew. This highlighted another approach by many Quakers: a drive for innovations.
The approach of taking time to gain success was one that our table discussion recognised as the antithesis of many business practices today. Many businesses today take a short-term view and expect near instant returns. This leads to a focus on just the bottom line, rather than on the value being delivered.
One person on our table stated that they are always slightly concerned when they hear the term ‘serial entrepreneur’. While very positive about entrepreneurs, the concern was that people who always looked for the next new thing were likely to take a short-term view of the businesses that they start. This could mean that the businesses were not set up to survive in the medium- to long-term and that wider impacts and ethics are given little consideration.
Another point that came across strongly in Richard’s talk was the fact that Quakers looked at how their businesses interacted with communities. Quakers felt that they had to look after the social well-being of their workers. Famous examples include the development of workers communities at Bourneville. Some people criticise this as paternalism but Richard counters by asking “what is wrong with that?”
Many of the approaches and ethics shown by Quakers in the 1800’s are now being captured in company sustainability approaches. You can see this in the categories that the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) recommends that companies consider for reporting. The fact that so many of the businesses that the Quakers founded are still thriving more than 150 years later suggests that they understood a thing or two about sustainability.