Public trust in large businesses has suffered a breakdown caused by the banking crisis, a perceived focus on profits ahead of customer service and numerous tales of companies seen not to be paying their “fair share” in taxes.
Right on the front line is always the building trade. More than any industry, construction cannot hide away, and how it builds trust with the public is vital.
Alan Hope, below, chief executive of Bristol-based construction firm Midas Group, said: “The construction business is played out in public. We do our work in local communities, schools, hospitals, shops and universities, so maintaining high standards throughout is imperative to us.”
These days companies such as Midas need policies covering everything from waste management and carbon reduction to training and development and environmental protection. But it takes more.
Alan said: “The growth of our business, which now employs over 400 people across the South West, is due to the fact that we are at the heart of the community.
“We often work in built-up areas, or close-knit communities, so communicating with them throughout our work is very important.
“We run an annual community engagement week programme, support local organisations, clubs and societies, and employ local people where we can. That is critical to us because with the right project you can use a build as a catalyst for employment, training and regeneration, and create a virtuous circle.
“I firmly believe that no business can remain successful in the long term without a strong ethical foundation.”
Kevin Fear, head of health, safety and environmental strategy at the Construction Industry Training Board, agreed. “When it comes to construction, corporate responsibility manifests itself in a number of ways,” he said. “Construction projects, whether a major infrastructure project or a small housing development, are by their nature visual, audible and they impact upon the environment around them.
“Corporate responsibility in construction is not only measuring and mitigating any immediate health, safety or environmental risks, it’s also looking at how the area around the works can be enhanced, how you can train and build up the local skills base and what other positive legacy can be created.
“As an example, CITB’s client-based approach is about working with the developers of construction projects in order to provide opportunities for local people to train on the site, which leaves the workforce of that area more highly skilled and ready to take advantage of any future opportunities.”
Another way firms build local ties is through community benefits associated with big projects. For example, housebuilder Taylor Wimpey’s development of the former Cadbury site in Keynsham includes building a new Fry Club and sports facilities. Often such things are written into the planning permission.
While builders work in public, they are not the only ones under the spotlight. The credit crunch sparked a collapse in confidence in business and for some companies the answer has been to focus on corporate social responsibility or, in plain English, giving something back to the community.
There is no doubt that, as Government spending and services shrink, there is an opportunity for business to fill the void.
Zoe Colosimo, chief operating officer of Neighbourly, a social network that matches firms and community projects, said trust in business had been so badly damaged firms had to act. “Business very much concentrated on profits at the expense of everything else such as the environment, social impact and the economy,” said Zoe.
“The focus was on short-term financial gain rather than looking at the long-term needs of society. One way to build that trust with their consumer again is to invest in the place where their business operates.”
She said there was a growing trend for companies – national giants such as Unilever and local small businesses – to get involved in their communities. And as local and central government spending was cut back and public services shrank to the core essentials, there would be opportunities for business to do even more.
Zoe said: “Government funding is in rapid decline. There’s a huge gap between what was funded by local government and what still needs to happen and there is an opportunity for companies to step up and fill it.”
Traditionally, giving something back has been about painting the community centre, for example, or fundraising for a national charity.
“Those things are brilliant and should continue,” said Zoe. “But there are local projects, too, that companies can support.”
One example is Westbury Primary School in Bristol, which recently joined neighbourly.com to raise money for books to stock its library. So far it has raised £3,000.
Charities and the public sector, it seems, are increasingly targeting business for support.
The Bristol Old Vic recently created a business club to fund plans to build a new glass atrium opening up the front of the historic playhouse. Commercial property firm Jones Lang LaSalle is the first to sign up.
And Bristol charity St Peter’s Hospice has just appointed a corporate fundraiser to help it maximise that source of funding. Edward Smith, right, joins having previously been involved in Bristol Zoo’s hugely successful Wow! Gorillas campaign.
He said: “I aim to engage with local businesses and enable the company and staff members to raise as much funds as they can. Some of the ways people have supported in the past are incredible, including a lady who shaved her head! I can’t wait to get stuck in to creative, exciting ideas like that and get out and about meeting people.”
Avon Wildlife Trust is another organisation that benefits from corporate support.
Folly Farm centre director, Andrew-Lund Yates, said: “With more and more companies realising the importance of the environment to their business, we are seeing an increasing amount of inquiries for corporate bookings. With a range of sustainable features, including bio-mass heating and rainwater harvesting, plus the fact that all profits from the centre are gift-aided back to Avon Wildlife Trust, in order to help protect local wildlife, we are proud to be able to help businesses with their social objectives by providing an inspiring conference venue and a venue that can be booked with a clear conscience.”
The Royal Mail is one company to use the centre. Stamps and collectibles managing director, Andrew Hammond, said he had been using the venue for executive team events for years, and had seen the benefits.
“We often refer to plans developed here as the Folly plans,” he said. “My team love the tranquillity and the space it creates for them to think. The environmental and CSR perspectives were not the primary drivers for us, but have become an integral part of the experience and, indeed, our reasons for coming back.”
But while more and more organisations are asking businesses for support, some firms are beginning to take a more sophisticated approach to giving back, offering professional expertise rather than money.
Phil Cotton, head of the Bristol office at big four accountants KPMG, said: “About 18 months ago we decided that we wanted to move away from the digging and painting fences approach and bring some of our real skill sets to the benefit of these organisations. For example, with Shelter we have seconded a member of staff to help them co-ordinate their whole programme around affordable housing. We are helping charities with strategy, fundraising and logistics – the sort of things we sell to our clients we are trying to bring to our charity work, too.”
KPMG’s focus is on education and social mobility and it is working with Shelter and Action for Literacy. Among its programmes are work experience placements for the homeless, often in the post room, print room and catering, although one woman did do a stint in the tax department.
Phil said KPMG did such work because “it’s the right thing to do” but said it was also expected by employees and potential employees and was often a factor in whether people did or did not join the firm.
Despite the new approach, Phil hasn’t thrown out the paint brushes just yet. “Our staff enjoy getting out and about in the fresh air so we still do that, we’re just trying to broaden what we can offer,” he said.
Phil admitted it was easier for a big firm such as KPMG to spare the time for such projects, but there were smaller organisations did it, too.
He said: “It usually takes a passionate leader or chief executive to drive it, but it does happen.”
There is a clear demand for businesses, big and small, to play an active role in communities. And there is a growing desire from business to do just that. But as the public sector shrinks, the number of worthy causes in need grows. Whether business alone can fill that gap remains to be seen.
[The Bristol Post; 05-March-2014]