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Jonathan Wild
by Jane Simms

Jonathan Wild, head of flourishing tea, coffee and cakes business Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate, has won a string of awards for ethical business, HR and sustainability. So why does he describe CSR as a "load of nonsense"?

I don't believe in work-life balance," states Jonathan Wild, chairman and chief executive of the Yorkshire-based café, tea and coffee business Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate. "It suggests people are dead when they are at work. I think work should be a joy—the best part of your life—and we try to ensure that we give people a great quality of life while they are at work." He also thinks corporate social responsibility is "a load of nonsense". 

"I'm comfortable with the idea that we are a responsible business, but the concept of 'CSR' feels like the crumbs businesses throw away—you know, something that's out there, on the periphery, an area of discretionary spend that is liable to be cut when times get hard. For us, actually, this is the way we do business."

Wild doesn't believe in philanthropy either. "I haven't got the right to dole out my staff's or my shareholders' or any of my other stakeholders' money without getting something back," he says.

Yet, though Wild uses the label reluctantly, Bettys and Taylors is a model of stakeholder engagement. This is a family business in more ways than one. The company was founded by his great uncle, Frederick Belmont, a Swiss immigrant, in 1919. When he died in 1952 his nephew, Victor Wild, took it over, in turn handing it over to his son Jonathan in 1996. Jonathan's wife Lesley is also a director.

But, as Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School (LBS), said when the company won a social responsibility award five years ago, "Such is the strength of the culture that sometimes non-family behave more like family than family."

Working conditions seem exemplary. Staff get to eat excellent food for free in in-house cafés, they can move around the business into jobs that best suit them and are given tailored training to help them progress. What's more, everyone receives a quarterly bonus, social activities abound, and staff are on first-name terms with Wild, who is very visible around the business and knows all 1,052 employees. Long service awards celebrating anything from five to 35 or more years with the company are increasingly common.

One of the things that most motivates the staff is the business's values—including its dedication to craftsmanship, quality and integrity in its products, its superlative customer service and, last but not least, its visceral commitment to the local and international community and environment. Employee Chris Powell, who received an MBE in October for services to the community, left school with no qualifications and took a temporary job as a packer in the Taylors factory 19 years ago to earn a bit of money. But he says he was "blown away, right from the beginning" by the friendliness of the people and then by the help the firm gave him and his sister (another employee) when she developed a brain tumour.

He was quickly drawn into community activities, becoming, among other things, a governor at a school for children with special needs and, more recently, the company's recycling champion. He says: "The great thing about this company is that it really invests in people to help them uncover and use their talents."

Every year, the company gives five per cent of its profits to good causes. Each branch of the business chooses its own charity and organises its own fundraising activities. "That gives employees ownership of the charity and the events they run become part of the social glue that binds the teams together," says Powell. Since 1986, staff have raised over £250,000 for local good causes, and the company has matched it pound for pound.

This local community involvement is replicated at international level. Taylors has forged close ties over many years with tea and coffee growing communities across Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and, more recently, has created a robust sustainable sourcing programme to ensure that its tea and coffee is grown responsibly. It says it always pays fair prices to tea and coffee growers, often giving a premium to smallholder farmers to help them maintain exceptional quality. Tea and coffee buyers, along with ethical trading manager Cristina Talens, work closely with growers to monitor and help improve the living and working conditions of workers and their families, setting up schools and nurseries.
Again, this approach is about enlightened self-interest, says Wild. "It's only by forging strong trading relationships with the growers, and paying them premium prices, that we can ensure a continued supply of the best quality teas and coffees."

So rather than setting out to "do good", his objective is to create and nurture what he calls "some kind of virtuous circle of relationships" between customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers and the local and wider environment. "A successful business has its own eco-system, and all the different elements have to be healthy for the whole thing to thrive," he says. This inclusive approach has been evident from the outset. A photograph in the foyer of the bakery depicts Frederick Belmont with 120 Bettys staff on an outing in Windermere in 1931. The accompanying press cutting quotes a speech given by Belmont at the time in which he credited "the close co-operation and harmony that existed between the management and the staff".

But it is Wild who has built and nurtured "the ethic", as he calls it, to the extent that it seems to be a defining characteristic of his time at the helm. Robin Kendall, senior chocolatier, who has 36 years' service under his belt, calls Wild "inspirational", adding: "he has had a huge impact on this business".

And despite Wild's insistence that the stakeholder model of business is essentially a commercial imperative, he clearly has a highly developed social conscience. In 1990 he promised to plant one million trees around the world, inspired by a Blue Peter programme his children watched about the problems associated with deforestation. His son Daniel planted the first tree in Harrogate, outside Betty's Café Tea Rooms. A further three million have followed, including 211,000 in India's Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins, one of the most disaster-prone areas of the world.

"Yes, we are having an impact with trees, but it's tiny, it's too small," says Wild. "All the little things businesses and individuals are doing to combat climate change and the targets we are setting won't work. I think climate change will accelerate to the point where we won't have a tea trade in 30 years' time because we will no longer be able to grow tea."

The biggest cause of climate change, as he points out, is the destruction of the rainforests. "Unless we do something about that, we may as well not bother doing all the other things, and just go for it, burn all our fossil fuels and see what happens. What we are doing at the moment is like turning the central heating down one degree and leaving all the doors and windows open." So he has now switched his focus from planting trees to saving the rainforest—and he is thinking big. Last October, the Prince of Wales announced the creation of The Prince's Rainforests Project, which aims to find solutions that could be implemented within the next 18 months. Under these auspices, Wild is trying to find ways to make rainforest protection "sexy" for businesses and to encourage them to work with under-funded NGOs on rainforest projects.

But the way to win the crucial business involvement is, he insists, to sell investment in the rainforests as a marketing rather than a CSR initiative. "The investment required is so big that it is scaring business off. So it has to be couched in terms of what they get back, because that is how business works," he says. His growing involvement in such big-picture initiatives is inevitably drawing the 56-year-old Wild away from day-to-day involvement in the business, a transition that he acknowledges needs to be handled with great care. The next generation—his own children and those of his sister—are in their twenties, and not yet ready to take on the baton. So, Wild says, "You have to design an interregnum of some sort, and we are just groping towards that now."

Would he consider selling out to a bigger organisation, in the same way as other "ethical" firms such as Green & Black's, Body Shop and Ben & Jerry's have done? At the moment, there's no doubt things are going well. But as Wild says, "That's a question every generation has to ask itself. This business is not up for sale, but the family has to be adding value to the business and the business to the family, or why bother?"

A major plank of those values is a determination to grow sustainably. There are just six Bettys Café Tea Rooms—two in York, two in Harrogate, one in Northallerton and one in Ilkley—and Wild steadfastly resists suggestions that he should open tearooms on high streets up and down the country in the certain knowledge that the strong craft-based, hands-on, family-oriented culture that is central to the company's success could not be sustained. A strong bank balance and determination to continue developing using its own resources is another element of the company's sustainable growth strategy. It seems to be working. Sales are rising steadily, up from £63m in 2006 to £70m last year, and staff numbers grew from 898 to over 1,000 during the same period.

But again, striking the right balance is important. "People here love growth. They love it when the sales go up, when they see us building an extension to the bakery. It's a sign that the business is alive and kicking and that we're doing well," says Wild. "But this business is about providing a good life doing good things among good people. People know it would probably be less fun working in a subsidiary of a larger organisation."

If Wild is to achieve his ambition of ensuring the company is "fit for the future, by thinking big but acting small," he will have to overcome his natural reticence for public relations. His employees take quiet pride in their string of awards. The company featured in the Sunday Times Best 100 Companies to Work For list five years in a row, for example, and last year won, among others, the Queen's Award for Sustainable Development, with Wild himself clinching the Business in the Community Prince's Ambassador Award in Yorkshire and Humber in recognition of his personal commitment to ethical business practice. But, unlike in other perhaps less deserving companies, there is no inclination to shout about that success.

But while Bettys has so far seen no reduction in sales or in the queues outside its teashops as a result of the credit crunch, finding some way of communicating that the premium prices customers pay for their tea, coffee and cakes reflect the company's ethical sourcing policy and the craft skills that make each individual cake almost a labour of love, could help avoid any decline.

Authenticity and integrity run in Bettys and Taylors' blood. As LBS's Nicholson said: "One senses that here is a business driven by a desire to do good, not a need to be seen to do good."

Nonetheless, as Wild now concedes: "If you are doing good, you want to make sure that you are leveraging maximum benefit from it."