Stewart Wallis OBE on what Heart in Business means to him

HiBL final logo with strapline

What is business for? And who is it for? These are questions that have intrigued me ever since I was a 21 year old at university. I applied to a number of companies (the usual ‘milk round’) whilst at Cambridge; I was interviewed by a major multi-national at one of their detergent plants. One of the questions was, “are you in love with profits?” I answered, “No”. It was the wrong answer. Later, I was told to not worry about my answers but to let my imagination roam. So, I did. The question was, “If the continents came together with no loss of life, over a period of six months, and formed one large landmass, what do you think the consequence would be? Please say the first thing that comes into your head.” And so, I did. I said that there would be elephants in Britain; I could tell immediately that this was the wrong answer! The answer should have been that the unit transport costs of their products would be greatly reduced. I didn’t get that job.

A few years later, while at London Business School, I remember once having lunch with a very senior executive from DuPont and I asked him the question: “What is the purpose of your business?” His answer was, “…to maximise medium term price per share for my shareholders.” I replied, “Fascinating. How many of those shareholders do you know?” After a pause, he replied “Not many.” Then he said, “It’s a bit stupid – dedicating my life to making people I’ve never met richer. “ I don’t know how long he stayed at DuPont.

I next went to the World Bank, working on industrial development in the Far East; and then to running a group of packaging companies in North Derbyshire. As Managing Director, I was tasked with completing a major turnaround as the business was very unprofitable. I did all of the usual things, but I also realised that many of the people working in the factories I was running had infinitely more skills than their job suggested. Many of them were doing things like running big choirs or working for charities, whilst doing menial jobs at the factory. So, I involved everybody in discussions about the future of the company and sought their ideas and opinions on how we could eliminate waste, improve customer service, etc. We were successful in turning those businesses around and they are still successful today.

For me, this was the first tangible view of what ‘heart in business’ means. It is a business that works for the people who work within it and for the community as a whole; employee well-being is crucial.

Later, after working at Oxfam, I came to the New Economics Foundation where I came to realise what a flawed economic system we have. The economy is a subset of the environment; it’s not the other way around. Therefore, not only should business maximise the well-being of its employees and the community, it must also be a good steward of this planet and the environment. These are at the core of my beliefs on ‘heart in business’.

I believe that all businesses should have a clear purpose. This requires a charter, and businesses should be held accountable for meeting that charter. I also believe that as a leader, one is a servant – not a master – and as a servant-leader, one must set very clear values. Then (as already mentioned), it seems crucial that a good business should create good jobs and employee well-being whilst protecting and enhancing the environment. At the moment, these things are either legislated in or are by-products of a successful business. Yes, of course business needs to make a certain amount of profit. But the profits should be a means to an end – not be the end in itself.

All of this means a revolution in how we do business. It requires different measurement systems, different legislation, different taxation systems and different financial systems. These are all feasible. But, we have to start with the heart. And the heart of business means an organisation serving its customers, its employees and its community and creating well-being and a better planet for us all.

Stewart Wallis, OBE

Executive Director, New Economics Foundation (NEF)