From a moment of truth to a movement of trust

The BSA’s latest report, Rebuilding business for society - co-authored with Association of Financial Mutuals (AFM), Co-operatives UK, the Employee Ownership Association and Social Enterprise UK -explores our sector's purpose. Here we explore some of its findings and recommendations.

Originally published in BSA Society Matters magazine

The BSA’s latest report, Rebuilding business for society - co-authored with Association of Financial Mutuals (AFM), Co-operatives UK, the Employee Ownership Association and Social Enterprise UK -explores our sector's purpose. Here we explore some of its findings and recommendations.

Covid-19 has been described as “a moment of truth” for businesses, as how they behave through the pandemic will reflect on them for a long time to come.

As the country went through lockdown building societies, credit unions and banks maintained services for customers to enable them to access their money, and gave payment holidays on mortgages and loans to those affected by the pandemic. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, John Glen MP, has written an open letter to recognise the great contribution of financial services workers in delivering essential banking services.

Building societies and credit unions have also helped the people around them with financial support for affected local charities, as well as in a number of other ways. These range from leveraging supply chains to support PPE manufacture (Coventry Building Society), to launching a Covid financial and mental wellbeing guide (Cumberland Building Society), to competitions and events to support members and employees in keeping children busy at home (Newbury and Darlington building societies and Glasgow Credit Union).

As well as businesses helping people, the Government has provided unprecedented support to households and businesses across the country. More joint effort will be required in the months ahead.

The Covid crisis has clearly demonstrated that any idea that businesses stood apart from the State or from their communities is mistaken.

Opinion had already started to shift in this direction in the corporate world. It was becoming less accepted that the only social purpose of business was to increase its profits, as Milton Friedman had proposed several decades ago. The growth of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) criteria and a louder promotion of corporate purpose over recent years are evidence of this change, and the effect of the Covid pandemic will be to accelerate the spread of such ideas.

Although there is a growing acceptance that businesses should have a wider purpose than maximising profits, bringing this about is much more difficult than simply encouraging businesses to re-write their corporate mission statements.

The British Academy has been conducting a programme of work on the principles that make businesses purposeful. They identify that purpose needs to be embedded across ownership, governance, measurement, performance, finance and investment, with law and regulation to enable and require it where necessary.

The BSA is one of a group of five organisations representing consumer and employee owned businesses and social enterprises that have jointly explored how fundamental the first of these principles - a firm’s ownership - is to its pursuit of purpose. Over 5,000 people working in various types of business – from Plcs to the public sector - were surveyed about how they saw the purpose of the organisation where they worked.

The results show significant differences in employee perceptions across ownership types.

In financial services specifically, 87% of employees at shareholder-owned banks agreed that their employer’s main goal was to maximise profits. This compared to just 30% of employees at customer owned building societies.

In addition, bank employees thought that while the bank’s shareholders got 25% of the value created by the business and its customers got 19%, building society employees thought that shareholders and investors got 4% and customers 39%. Local communities were also believed to do better at building societies employees than at banks.

How is the value created by the organisation where you work shared between these groups of stakeholders?

Of course, specific forms of corporate ownership don’t guarantee certain outcomes – effective delivery of a broader purpose depends on good leadership and management to generate, implement and deliver the strategy.

However, the results in financial services, which are also replicated in other sectors, indicate that there are often substantial differences in what, or for whom, employees think they are trying to achieve in their workplace, depending on the ownership structure.

Customer-ownership can help to deliver a distinctive purpose because it is a structural feature that shapes various other aspects of the business, from arrangements for governance and accountability, to the metrics and key performance indicators against which success is measured and rewarded, to which firms and investors are sought as partners.

As a result of these features, claims to support a group stakeholders, such as customers, can benefit from added authenticity, and a consistency of purpose as conflicts of interests with shareholders don’t arise. Encouraging member engagement and democratic participation can give a sense of customers being valued. All of these factors support the development of trust in an organisation and its purpose.

This is demonstrated by 95% of building society employees and 91% of building society customers agreeing that their building society is trustworthy, compared to 72% of bank employees and 61% of bank customers when asked about the bank.

Broadening corporate purposes beyond maximising value for shareholders can help to address some of the significant future challenges we face as a society, such as climate change and inequality across generations, by better incorporating the views of various groups of stakeholders.

Enabling a diversity of organisational forms could help to deliver this. To achieve this the report Rebuilding business for society recommends that

  • the frameworks to facilitate different types of firm are strengthened and policymaking processes made more inclusive. In financial services, this means regulation is made more proportionate and appropriate for different types of firm;
  • businesses recapitalising after Covid-19 can enable groups of customers or employees to take on ownership via a deferred payment plan;
  • Community Economic Development, an approach applied in Canada and the US, for bottom-up local economic regeneration is adopted in the UK as part of the levelling up agenda.

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic shows how interdependent businesses, the State and local communities are. Reforming the corporate landscape in a way that reflects that can help to make a more sustainable future for all.