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Putting down roots

Jonathan Wild is chairman of Harrogate-based Bettys and Taylors.

As businesses are being forced to respond to environmental and philanthropic issues Jonathan Wild, third generation chairman of Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate, tells how his Yorkshire family business grappled with the burden of corporate social responsibility

January 2005: it was a tough call. The staff made it clear they wanted to do it; the young fourth generation shareholders wanted to do it. The directors were more circumspect. Our long-term commitments were to Africa and to our own local Yorkshire communities. If there was more money to give, shouldn't it go towards our existing projects, not the Asian Tsunami appeal?

A few days later I was in London at a meeting of the Business in the Community (BitC) leadership team that promotes best practice in the relationship between business and charities. Julia Cleverdon, the BitC director, reminded us how important it was that we used our clout to help the Tsunami appeal in every way we could. Many of the companies present had already responded impressively. Everyone looked to me. As the only family business representative on this team of corporates, there was always an expectation on any issue that we would have dug deeper and more creatively than plcs who ostensibly are more accountable to their shareholders.

I said we had done nothing, and weren't planning to do anything at all to help the Tsunami appeal. I explained why. Nearly 20 years ago a disaster of similar proportions was captured live on television: the Ethiopian famine. We started funding environmental projects there, working with charities small and large to help rural Ethiopian villages create some kind of sustainable future for themselves, and especially to help them plant the trees that would stabilise the eroded soil, the trees that would make the streams run surely and steadily, the trees that would provide food for the people, fodder for the animals, fuel for their fires, and building materials for their homes. "Two million trees later, we are still keeping faith with Ethiopia and I have no intention of abandoning them," I said. "How many of you will still be funding Tsunami reconstruction projects in 20 years time?"

Silence. Then the BitC Director replied that it wasn't a matter of either/or; it was a matter of digging deeper into our pockets to find the extra that was needed to help this unique crisis. "I'm not sure the world works quite like that," I said. Sure enough, the British public responded astonishingly generously to the appeal, but months later many other charities were finding their fund-raising greatly diminished. Philanthropy does seem to be finite.

Of course, we did do something for the Tsunami, but only because we found a way to make our support more than just sweet charity. We found a way to make a sustainable investment for the benefit of several of our stakeholder groups: our staff, our supply chain and our shareholders.

A plan was hastily agreed with staff charity co-ordinators. We don't have a company 'Charity of the Year' anymore, preferring to allow the staff at each of our eight business units to select a small local good cause where their help can really make a difference. Whatever they choose to back, the company doubles the funds they raise. This year would be different. One third of funds raised by staff would be allocated to overseas projects including Africa and the Tsunami. In the meantime, an immediate but modest donation was made to the Disasters Emergency Committee for Tsunami victims.

Making philanthropy not just a boardroom issue, but something that all our 1,000 staff are involved in, plays a crucial part in creating the very special culture of our business. In his book The Land That Thyme Forgot, William Black tours the UK in search of traditional regional food producers. On his visit to Bettys Bakery he observed: "... people smiled and greeted you as if they really enjoyed being there. In fact that's the one overriding thing that struck me about my day at Bettys and Taylors: people actually smiled at work. They smiled at you in the corridors. It was as if we had stumbled into a mad world of happy British people who had seen the light, and put all their energy into making spiritual cakes."

The clear implication here is that one of the principle sources of the smiles William Black observed is the employees' feeling that their company not only cares for them, but for other needy stakeholders too, whether customers, the local community, the environment or the supply chain. Happy, proud staff for us is not 'fluffy'; it's strategy. We operate in areas of more or less full employment. Citizens can choose who they wish to work for. To be an employer of choice is a key part of our sustainability, our survival.

But back to the Tsunami. Those young fourth generation shareholders were still adamant about us using our clout to make something happen right away. They had come into a few shares at the age of 18, and with the help of an external mentor, had embarked on a programme of learning how to be good shareholders within a stakeholder philosophy. As part of the learning, £25,000 had been earmarked each year for them to choose good causes which fitted the company's philosophy of sustainable giving, and which had not already received support.

The Tsunami: they were adamant. But how to transform their heartfelt philanthropic response into sustainable investment?

We buy 400 tonnes of tea a year from Sri Lanka. We have agents out there. Simon, one of our tea buyers was due to fly out in 10 days time. He could tap into the relief work being organised by the Colombo business community.

Eight months later a letter arrived from Shehan Paul, our agent in Colombo. "A few lines to convey my deep appreciation and gratitude to the Wild family, board of management, staff and all my friends at Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate, for readily coming forward and extending a helping hand to Sri Lanka at a time of need. Your kind gesture gave us the strength to initiate and fund a rehabilitation project, which involves a small fishing village, namely Nilwella... [and inspired us] to sponsor a small-to-medium scale project instead of being party to one of the multi-funded programmes."

It was never our motivation, but by letting our Sri Lankan suppliers control our donation we have won new friends in the tea community – and ultimately they can choose who they sell their best teas to. Our philanthropy has become sustainable investment.

The fishermen of Nilwella hand-painted our 'Yorkshire Tea' logo on the fishing boats we funded. Embarrassed, we protested that this was unnecessary. "Ah, but it is necessary", we were told, "we are proud people and we want to show our appreciation, and give something back to you". So, if you are lazing on a Sri Lankan beach and see a 'Yorkshire Tea' fishing canoe pass by, you'll know the reason why.

More importantly, a second project, to part-fund a new school in Galle, in Sri Lanka is being supported for a second year by the unanimous vote of the young shareholders. They have grasped that a family business is all about long-term relationships, not quick fixes. Powerful learning.

I have done my share of learning, too. Around 20 years ago, tree planting in Ethiopia was very much a personal crusade, an environmental commitment I had made to my young children. Nowadays our 'Trees for Life' programme has a life of its own, sustainable because it engages so many more of our stakeholders.

We have widened our tree planting projects across all countries from which we source the tea and coffee which is at the heart of our business. We support many tree planting and environmental schemes in our local Yorkshire area. We engage our customers and give them the chance to collect tree tokens from our products. Last year the Women's Institute movement alone collected enough tokens to fund a 30,000 tree, 200 acre wood in Ethiopia. A few months ago, we took two Women's Institute members, a district nurse from Staffordshire and a farmer's wife from Wales to Ethiopia to see 'their' wood, the last phase of an entire forest we have funded over several years. The Head Woman of the village explained how quickly the trees grow and how dramatic their impact has been. Only three years ago, the village women spent almost the entire day walking to the nearest well, taking their children with them. When it did rain, water ran off the hillsides and washed their huts away. Now everything is different. The forest is already providing fuel, food, fodder and building materials. A stream has miraculously reappeared providing water close at hand. Now there is time for children to go to school, and they have started to build one. "Before the land was dry and useless" said the Head Woman, "but now the land is green, and where there is green, there is hope".

Closer to home, our employees see tree planting as part of the company's way of doing things, the way we celebrate. For instance, for every child or grandchild born to a member of staff, we have a Babes in the Wood plantation in the Yorkshire Dales, where a tree is planted in their honour.

It's this multiple stakeholder inclusion that is the key. As an individual I have the right to be philanthropic, to be well disposed and generous towards my fellow man; as a company director I have to do more than just orchestrate 'sweet charity'. I have to find ways to leverage long-term benefit for all my stakeholders. Far too often I see corporate social responsibility acted out by corporations at the expense of one or more stakeholders, being seen to be supporting some high profile cause, meanwhile squeezing money (and life) out of the supply chain. Leave corporate social responsibility to the corporates! For family businesses there is another way: a way of being philanthropic, but in a strategic, long-term inclusive way that helps the business, and the stakeholders who depend on it, to survive and prosper. I call it sustainable investment. Try it; you'll see.

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