The Work Project: The role of the ‘New Industrialists’

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Image: World Economic Forum

By Hilary Cottam

This is the sixth blog in a new series about the future of work. The series reflects on workshops that were held in five locations across Britain over the past two years. The project has been generously funded by Laudes Foundation, Open Society Foundation and James Anderson.

In the first blog, I set out the context for this project: a shifting socio-economic paradigm driven by technology change, looming environmental catastrophe and the unaddressed legacies of injustice that mean we must think again about work. In the second I wrote about working time, in the third about care, in the fourth about transition, the fifth about new forms of organising.

Here I shift the focus away from labour to capital asking what is the role of business leaders in the re-imagining of work and life?

I n previous technology revolutions industrial pioneers — from the canal builder Henri Saint-Simon to eponymous car builder Henry Ford — have understood that new forms of capitalism require new social systems and they have played a critical role in imagining and experimenting with new social models. They have collaborated — often uneasily with other actors; the intellectuals, civil society and the state — because they understand, in the words of Saint-Simon, ‘a good society cannot be sustained on the foundations of exploitation’.

What unites or defines those I am calling the ‘New Industrialists’ are three things:

  1. They go against the grain of normative thinking. Henry Ford understood that a market for his cars required better paid workers: he took his board to court in order to force through wage rises.
  2. They respond with innovation to the growth of economic inequality. New Industrialists do not simply write or comment, they act, investing in demonstration projects at scale– for example, the building of new communities with decent housing and new forms of care undertaken by Joseph Rowntree, Titus Salte or Julius Rosenwald.
  3. They act through enlightened self-interest.* This is not primarily about philanthropy — although many New Industrialists become philanthropists and almost all of them risk their own money supporting social experiments with no expectation of a direct return. The primary motivation however is to re-shape capitalism so that business works better and society can flourish.

New Industrialists of the past understood that the social and the economic are deeply connected. New Industrialists of today must take a step further engaging with the inter-dependencies of the economic, the social and the ecological in new generative models.

Kellogg, whose experiment I wrote about in the second blog, was a New Industrialist. His innovations grew from a conviction that a flourishing workforce would enable business growth. President Hoover dispatched his officers and journalists swarmed on the Battle Creek plant because they believed the work/time experiment was the future of capitalism in action. Boots similarly understood the connections between new working conditions and the success of his company. The introduction of the paid weekend in 1934 was a pragmatic response to a period of overproduction, but the idea came to Boot (and stuck) because he was more widely engaged with (at the time radical) ideas about how we should live.

Historically New Industrialists tend to be found in those businesses at the forefront of the technology revolution. Their pragmatism is born from an understanding that their new businesses and ways of working — for example factory production — will not grow without new social systems: new forms of learning for example or new forms of housing. Because these individuals are technology pioneers they are intellectually engaged with the culture, not just the mechanisms of the incumbent technology. They seem themselves in a historic moment of paradigm change.

All of this suggests therefore that we should find the New Industrialists of today in Silicon Valley and leading the new digital industries. But the picture is unclear. We have seen the emergence of philanthropists — Bill Gates for example. We have seen others who in some ways understand the predicaments but their response is literally one of flight, their investments in carbon intensive forms of elite travel and escape. Even Google’s proposed ‘smart city’ investments which would offer child care, gyms, nutrition and more, seemed designed to create a life apart from the wider community and were bitterly contested by the cities where they have been proposed.

In this revolution finance has a powerful role to play, and those who invest in the technology revolution talk about the dangerous cleavages in our societies and the need to respond. Prominent has been Larry Fink, but data shows that his voting decisions on the boards where he carries a majority have not followed his words. There is a Taoist saying that ‘the bigger the front, the bigger the back’. It refers to smoke and mirrors, the inevitable gaps between very large pronouncements and action. This is a way of being in the world that is far from the behaviours of New Industrialists. So, can we find the path changers who fit the criteria I describe and might be today’s New Industrialists?

I explored this question with two more thoughtful business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2020. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft and the author of a book called Hit Refresh consciously sees himself as a leader in a new era. Ajay Banga, at the time the CEO of Mastercard, led a global campaign of financial inclusion and talks of the ‘decency quotient’ as core to good business. I wanted to know what both leaders think should be the principles of a new social settlement and what role they feel they should personally play. Their thoughts can be heard here.

In the first phase of the Work Project I took these questions into the communities where I have worked. In each place those leading local businesses were invited to a small, informal supper where we discussed the New Industrialist idea and how it might play out at the local level.

In Grimsby the dinner was hosted by Jason Stockwood. Jason is from Grimsby and calls himself ‘an accidental CEO’. He had a turbulent childhood which he writes about in his book ReBoot. He did badly at school and started working on the docks at 18. Feeling stuck he left the town and landed a job in a London basement in an early call centre. It was from there ‘by chance’ he found himself in the world of digital business. Jason went on to be a founder in a series of businesses — some of which like Match.com and Skyscanner are household names. Convinced that most businesses run on a broken model that limits business growth, he has led cultures which are unusually open and democratic. The success of these companies, which have been consistently voted as the best places to work in the UK, are a testament to his experimental and often radical approach.

Today Jason is back in Grimsby — he has bought the football club for the town on a new working model and he is part of a network of Grimbarians — those who have stayed and those returning from the diaspora who are building good businesses in the town. He hosts a quarterly call for a network he calls ‘Home Win’ which brings together all those who have an interest in the town: local council employees, entrepreneurs, activists and others like me who have become part of this wider web.

The supper in Grimsby, as in Barrow, Barnsley and other locations was a fascinating evening. Whilst most (not all) of those who attend already know each other, it is clear that the space and occasions for this sort of conversation are not common. There is an understanding that each place needs a new forward looking narrative with a generative economy at its heart and there is a genuine interest in exploring, but currently no space to do this. People came to these suppers often thinking their ideas were in some way tangential to their day job, or not shared by others — it gave these suppers a particular energy.

Are the New Industrialists all men? The ‘official’ history is one of male captains of industry. In the shadows we sometimes glimpse wives or daughters. Margaret Fell (born Margaret Askew) in 1614 was an early feminist and a founder of Quakerism. She thus has a special place in a tradition that included those such as Rowntree that sought to establish an ethical capitalism. Her daughter Sarah Fell invested with her mother and three sisters in an iron bloomery (a very early form of smelter). She went on to found Ulverston grammar school and town bank. The bank worked on principles of inclusion for neighbours and friends who at the time were not eligible for bank accounts or much needed business loans.

In the US Sarah Breedlove (born 1867) is reputedly the first self-made millionaire in America. She harnessed the chemical revolution to create a beauty business. ‘I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South,” summarised Walker in a speech to the National Negro Business League Convention a few years before her death. “From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing…I have built my own factory on my own ground.” “I am in the business world, not for myself alone,” she told Booker T. Washington in 1912, “but to do all the good I can for the uplift of my race.” She worked toward that goal not only through her philanthropic activity, but by giving thousands of African-American women well-paying and dignified new jobs as commissioned sales agents.

In the UK, Anita Roddick, who also founded a new form of beauty business with the Body Shop, might be a 20th century New Industrialist with her radical ideas about the creation of natural products, her wider campaigning, and the autonomy of the workers within the Body Shop stores, whilst they were under her ownership. Looking more closely at history to find the New Industrialists of each era and to include women and Black leaders whose stories are often overshadowed will be part of continuing this work.

*It’s important to note that those I refer to were complex figures, who frequently shifted their political allegiances and often held views that we consider repugnant: Henry Ford for example was famously anti-semitic and the Rowntree family held plantations in the colonies where workers, many of whom were slaves, were not included in the enlightened experiments.

Hilary Cottam is a social activist, the author of Radical Help and an Honorary Professor at UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose @hilarycottam

The Work Project is made possible by a grant from Laudes Foundation. I’m grateful to the Open Society Foundation and to James Anderson for financial support which funded the workshops in 5 UK locations between 2020 and 2021 and I would like to thank the workshop participants and my local hosts in Barking, Barnsley, Barrow, East Ayrshire, Grimsby and Peckham.

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