Redefining the purpose of business

Rick Willmott welcomes a declaration by CEOs at America’s top companies that business must focus on improving society not just making profit

Something very exciting has happened which went largely under the radar.

CEOs at America’s top businesses redefined their own company's purpose and reason for being. Gone is the fixation that a company’s purpose is about turnover and profit – their future success will be measured by how they improve the society in which they operate.

A statement from The Business Roundtable – a group representing chief executive officers of major US corporations - sets out a new definition for the “purpose of a corporation”. CEOs at the likes of Apple, J.P Morgan, Boeing and Amazon now believe investing in their people, delivering value to customers, dealing ethically with suppliers and supporting outside communities should be at the forefront of business goals.

The Business Roundtable said this new definition outlines a “modern standard for corporate responsibility.”

For me, it also reflects a new reality - companies must invest in their people and communities to be successful over the long term – contributing to an economy that works for society as a whole. It’s a shift from short-term thinking, swapping profit and power to a focus on people and impact, something very close to Willmott Dixon’s own values.

Purpose beyond profit

Our belief that we have a ‘purpose beyond profit’ guides everything we do as a business. It was articulated as far back as 1978 in the Report and Accounts written by Peter Willmott:

Our Place in Society

A Group of companies, such as ours, which places very high importance on its human assets, must also recognise the responsibility that we have, through our people, to society as a whole.
It is easy for the company to concentrate solely on its proclaimed activity, with little or no reference to the environment and society of which it forms a part. At Willmotts we have, for a very long time, recognised our responsibility to help wherever the advice or services of our people can be of use. To this end we provide aid, not only in financial terms, but also in the service of our people to many organisations and communities.

It remains true now and it was then, so it’s great so see some of the world’s biggest companies recognise that the future of business is helping communities grow, treating your suppliers fairly and respecting your people.

Responsible business is here to stay

Feedback from our people shows one of the things they like about working for us is the opportunity to make a wider impact in communities through volunteering and getting involved with initiatives to improve the life chances of others. Last year four out of five of our people were involved in an activity to improve their local community, volunteering around 45,000 hours in total.

Being ethical in how we treat our supply chain is also key in the Brexit uncertainty, that’s why it’s long been a strategic priority that our supply chain are paid promptly, something recognised by our high performance in BuildUK’s listing of the best and worst payers in construction.

New reality

The narrative for good business is changing with a new reality that being successful is not measured in profit but in how we strengthen the society we are part of.

As J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon puts it, “Employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term. These principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to push for an economy that serves all.”

That neatly sums up our approach too.

Society is looking to companies for guidance on social and economic issues, now is the time to show we are delivering.