I attended a fascinating lecture this week on a long forgotten Victorian industrialist and philanthropist, one William Romaine Callender (1825-1876), mill owner, cotton trader, Conservative Member of Parliament and a dedicated supporter of his local community.
Cynics in this modern world would probably decry his type as patronising, condescending and paternalistic as well as other adjectives; typical, it would be said of the rich Victorians who looked upon philanthropy as a way to social acceptance.
It was a statement of his that struck me as being very significant. He said, in essence, that prosperity was good provided it was tempered by morality. At a time when many industrialists were driven by making money at the expense of those they employed, he stood out among his peers by, for example, encouraging the Trade Unions to be active in his businesses
Once again, Kenneth and Will Hopper's great book, The Puritan Gift, http://www.puritangift.com/ makes the point that the "great engines of growth", those companies in the USA which absorbed the values and ethos of the early settlers were the ones which were successful in every way.
Please note that with this ethos of "Prosperity with Morality" these great companies were successful, profitable, ethical and stable. What changed in the USA and, by default here in the UK, was as the Hoppers say, the "cult of the so-called experts" who were parachuted into many of these great companies without any domain knowledge but with an insatiable lust for making money.
The usual list of failed (and often fraudulent) companies like Enron, Worldcom and so on can also include great names such as General Motors and General Electric both of which have been materially changed, and not necessarily for the better, by having been managed by "financial engineers" rather than by people who knew what they were doing and what these companies stood for in the great scheme of things.
In the end it's all a matter of culture and this is one area which has to start at the top and then be driven down into the business. I recall an instance of a public company here in the UK which appointed a new Chairman, who after some investigation, decided that some expenses claims seemed to be excessive. It transpired that the CEO, through the company, had rented four apartments, had a helicopter and private jet, and had employed his wife and nanny in the company though they never set foot in it.
No-one can tell me that the whole company didn't know of these antics and consequently took the view that if it's OK for him, then it's OK for me too.
So what's the answer? It is perfectly feasible to achieve prosperity with morality and, in the end, far better for the well being of all the company's employees. Remember that morality is an absolute. There is no escape; like pregnancy, it can't be just a little bit moral or immoral.
The values must be set at the top, they must be visible and they must be driven so deep into the company that it is the only way that things are done by everyone without even thinking about it. Easy? Certainly not, but very satisfying and fulfilling, I would suggest. Callender's attitude to business has much to commend it.
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