Big Tent

In defence of big business

BY Mike Dunnett-Stone   /  8 September 2017

This article forms part of our Big Tent discussion

If you were asked to do a show-and-tell on the positives of capitalism, who would you choose to be your key note speaker? Top of the bill is, perhaps, a young, budding entrepreneur whose company has just had its first taste of success and is on the cusp of disrupting a major industry.

Someone who talks of making things better in society by challenging the big guys. A David against a plethora of Goliaths.

I wonder how many people, though, would wheel in the CEO of a FTSE 100 company. Cue thunder and lightning. Prepare your boos and hisses. Big business, which exploits its workers and finds ingenious ways of dodging tax, is, of course, the pantomime villain of capitalism.

I’m sure there are many companies that truly live up to this image. There are, as we all know, some terrible work places out there – and greedy tycoons like Philip Green deserve all they get.

But, whisper it, big business isn’t all bad.

The truth is that size matters. By operating at scale, the Goliath that is big businesses can move mountains that David couldn’t even have dented with his catapult.

The most obvious of these mountains is technical innovation. As Jeff Bezos points out, “no matter how good an entrepreneur you are, you’re not going to build an all-composite 787 in your garage – not one you’d want to fly in anyway”. Quite. Nor would I advise the garage as a test-bed for new medical equipment or procedures. Technical innovation, which ultimately results in better products and services, is often lead by big business.

Look beyond the obvious, though, and you’ll find one of the most interesting areas where big businesses are pushing boundaries, often without much recognition: employee well-being. Yes, big businesses are looking after their employees. In the same way that scale gives capacity for technical innovation, it also provides scope for making a better, more enjoyable workplace for everyone.

In 1878, Cadbury’s built the Bourneville Estate in Birmingham, providing services and facilities for its employees that plugged holes left by the state or the wider private sector. Training, pensions and improved medical care were amongst the initiatives introduced by Cadbury. These initiatives are now givens in the modern workplace.

Today, big businesses continue to help their employees in similar ways. Having been part of a small company that was acquired by a larger one, I witnessed first-hand how having scale is the only way to make meaningful improvements to workplace well-being initiatives.

First, there are the better versions of the ‘basics’: longer, better paid maternity and paternity cover, improved pensions, more holiday, gym membership, and dedicated mental health teams. They may sound like the solutions to “first world problems”, but take it from someone who has been there, these “perks” can change the lives of stressed young people struggling to cope with the pressures of modern life.

What’s more, when a company operates at scale, it has the opportunity to offer centralised perks which would not be available to employees (at an affordable price) in the wider world. When employees want something that the market cannot provide for a price that meets their valuation, companies can often step in. On-site doctors, music practice rooms (in my mind, a hugely important one), free day care, sports areas, nutritional experts etc. Some prove to be gimmicks, others are valued hugely by those who use them and serve to build communities within the workplace for those who may otherwise feel socially cut off.

Finally, big companies are increasingly helping their employees to help their communities. Through excellent initiatives such as the Access Project (where academically qualified workers teach underprivileged children in their spare office time) and wider paid volunteering initiatives, the spare capacity of big businesses is being put to good use helping the wider community.

And let’s not forget that this is just part of wider Corporate schemes that include FTSE 100 companies directly accounting for 3%+ of all charitable donations per year.

Perhaps the pantomime villain isn’t so bad after all.

Mike Dunnett-Stone is the Founder of Seed Music