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Putting a price on values

Sir Michael Bibby tells Marc Smith how values have played an integral part in the success of his 200-year-old family business

When Sir Michael Bibby starts quoting from a family document that dates back to 1899 you realise that family business values have been around longer than most companies, let alone CSR policies and mission statements. "Our duty is to conduct the business with every care and energy with which we are capable," reads Sir Michael, sixth-generation CEO of Bibby Line Group, a diversified business that celebrated its 200th birthday in 2007.

"It's those values that are absolutely consistent throughout our history, the softer issues that the family can take pride in and which become personal to the business," he explains. Although what he has just quoted dates back to the 19th century, Sir Michael says the family only put them all down on a sheet of paper which they issued to all of their employees in 2000.

Since then the family has added two policies: the compliance policy in which "the group strives to maintain the highest standards in corporate governance and bases its actions on the principles, openness, integrity and accountability"; and the community policy which states that "the group is committed to strengthening  and invigorating the local communities within which it operates."

The community policy was added to professionalise the family business's charitable objectives which had not been given the attention they perhaps deserved during difficult operating times in the 1980s and 90s.

Bibby Line was founded as a pure shipping company and focused on the UK to Burma and Ceylon trade routes from 1890 until the 1960s. Circumstances meant the company had to sell many of its ships just to survive in the 1980s and at that point they diversified into financial services and distribution. Sir Michael's father consolidated the shareholding in 1985 so the immediate family now owns 88% mainly through family trusts. They diversified further in the mid-2000s with the aim of searching out growth for 10 years hence.

Today, the group views the family's values and the business values as one and the same thing. "We have a diverse range of businesses and try to keep the values consistent across all of them," says Sir Michael. "These include values such as quality, integrity, safety and customer focus, but they are very much motherhood statements and we try to put some weight on each of them."

One topic that is currently engrossing the family is how to pass these values onto the next generation of Bibbys, who are aged one to 12. Unsurprisingly, Sir Michael draws on a lesson from history. "I can always remember my dad telling me a story of why you should always get dressed decently for dinner," he says. "Why do you think anybody should take care and trouble over what they provide you for food if you cant be bothered to even look decent for the meal?"

That softer, subtle message helped to shape Sir Michael's own values and he believes that one's upbringing is the time to imbed them. "I got inculcated with knowledge about the business from an early age," confirms Sir Michael, who only joined the business aged 28 after working as an accountant. "However, I found I knew as much about the business as people who had been working there for 20 years."

What sets family businesses apart is a strong culture that is defined by the family's values. In 200-year-old businesses such as Bibby, this culture is more established and the family is flexible enough to introduce new values as and when necessary. For those starting out on this road, ensuring you imbue your business with your family's values is a valuable lesson.

Bibby Line was named a joint winner of the JPMorgan Private Bank and Institute for Family Business UK Family Business Honours Programme

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