Paula Vennells, Chief Executive of the Post Office, got the conference off to an inspiring start on Friday evening. She combines this demanding role with being a self-supporting ordained minister to three parishes near Bedford. She actually finds many parallels between the Post Office and the Church of England. Both are highly valued national institutions providing care, support and services to many communities right across the country. Their presence is even valued by many who never bother to darken the doors of a local church or post office. They both require a delicate balance between central direction and local autonomy.
Paula became Chief Executive in 2012, the year that the Post Office separated from the Royal Mail. It was experiencing mounting losses and was closing post offices at a great rate. Yet Paula faced resistance to change from many different stakeholders: communities, customers, postmasters, unions and MPs.
She explained how she had taken on this challenge, bringing the Post Office to a state where it is now ‘past the tipping point’. After years of closures she and her colleagues have stabilized and modernized a network with over 11,500 branches. 17 million customers still visit a post office very week. The Post Office is the high street’s biggest provider of foreign currency services, conducts most of the basic transactions of a major bank, and has set up its own insurance business. 6000 branches have been modernized, the key to this being to locate post office functions within larger retail outlets. This has radically increased opening hours. The Post Office is now close to breaking even.
Paula has taken inspiration from the young King Solomon, who showed humility in asking God for a wise and understanding heart, so that he could rule his people with justice (1 Kings 3:6-12). Her leadership style has consisted in confronting the problems she faced, setting a powerful shared vision, engaging with all the stakeholders, and delayering leadership. In all this she has also found inspiration from the person of Jesus. She has learnt to show confidence in the people on the front line who often have the solutions at their fingertips. Their resourcefulness was confirmed by the recent flooding of a number of branches in Yorkshire, when local postmasters found ways to continue serving their communities whatever the challenge.
On Saturday morning Dawn Stallwood spoke on ‘Business for Kingdom Purpose’. Dawn used to work for a law firm; now she runs her own consultancy. Her faith came alive in a fresh way a few years ago and she has found that being a Christian definitely gives her an ‘edge’ that was not there before. She derives inspiration both from the nineteenth-century Quaker capitalists (well chronicled in Deborah Cadbury’s book The Chocolate Wars) and the Kingdom perspective found in John Mulford and Ken Eldred’s article ‘Entrepreneurs Transforming Nations”. She cited their view that ‘Kingdom entrepreneurs represent an engine that can transform a nation from one of self-centred individuals to one of other-centred people who love God and each other. The business sector perhaps more than any other in society has a unique opportunity to bring transformation to whole communities’.
Dawn proposed that God is the ultimate Stakeholder. Regarding him in this way has made her resolute and courageous in taking a moral stand, refusing to connive in clients’ dodgy behaviour. Seeing God as stakeholder is also consistent with chief executives regarding themselves as stewards and servants. Dawn invited delegates to split into groups and consider the question: ‘what would a business or organization need to look like to attract either (a) Jesus or (b) Lucifer as chairman? Interestingly, several groups reported that they felt Jesus – with his concern to save the lost – would be more interested in transforming ropey organizations than maintaining good ones.
Dawn finished her talk with an interesting exposition of the story about the widow’s oil in 2 Kings 4:1-7. She feels this has much to teach us about business/life in a pressure cooker. The widow – faced by a crisis caused by a diminishing supply of oil – did not panic, but faced the facts, sought wise and godly counsel, and acted with faith. The solution was found in partnership with God. She did the natural and he supplied the supernatural.
After coffee, David Ball focused on the key stakeholder groups of employee and customer. He is the founder-owner of the David Ball Group, which makes industrial sands, cements and concrete. Throughout its history, he and his company have been at the forefront of technological advance in the industry. In the 1990s, he took the performance of integrally waterproof concrete to a new lead. More recently he has pioneered Cemfree, a new zero-cement concrete which is much more environmentally friendly than any of its predecessors.
David believes that his business contributes to the building of God’s kingdom. He is driven by three key concerns. “The first is a passion for quality, making sure the product is right first time, every time. The second is training and education our staff, along with the training of our customers – very important! – into the way that things work properly. The third is service, service above self. You put the interest of your customer and your client first”. He sees quality, training and service as similar to the three legs of a stool: “If you get these three principles as the core of your business, your business will succeed and it will thrive”.
Following a break for networking in the first half of the afternoon, we came together in the second half to hear Steve Apted and Steve Mitchell do a joint presentation about Christian publishing. This is a sector which has seen major retrenchment in recent years, brought about by a combination of the impact of Amazon, decline in Christian readership, resistance of Christian publishers to change and the process of disintermediation (cutting out the middle men). The two Steves used Porter’s Five Forces Model to analyse the industry, surveying in turn the bargaining power of customers, the bargaining power of suppliers, the threat of new entrants, the threat of substitute products and competitive rivalry within an industry. Several key players in the Christian publishing world have disappeared.
Under the title “Someone has to be the bad cop”, Steve Apted explained how he had been brought in by IVP as an interim chief executive. In this role he had pushed through a merger with SPCK. This found favour with most stakeholders, but not the staff (much of the IVP operation closing), which had been painful. However, it does mean that IVP is now on a much firmer financial footing, while SPCK has diversified its theological position. The future for Christian publishers certainly lies in an increasingly digital output, with physical bookselling becoming a more localized and sharply focused activity.
In the evening attention switched to the area of investment, with Bill Seddon, Chief Executive of the Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church, explaining the church’s policy about investing in the corporate sector. He explained how Matthew 5:13-16 concerning the function of salt and light provides an inspiration for the work of his department: “For us ethics is neither a minor side-issue nor an end in itself but part of our response to the Great Commission”.
Bill worked systematically through their mission statement:
- To provide a high quality investment service seeking above average financial returns for investors
- To follow a discipline in which the ethical dimension is an integral part of all investment decisions
- To construct investment portfolios which are consistent with the moral stance and teachings of the Christian faith
- To encourage strategic thinking on the ethics of investment
- To be a Christian witness in the investment community
The biblical principles which the Methodist Church seeks to follow are to encourage fruitful use of economic resources, activities consistent with God’s nature and values, a concern for the vulnerable and oppressed, and healing of the effects of the Fall.
Bill pointed to examples of the Church engaging constructively with companies to improve ethical performance, notably in the mining industry. He was subjected to some searching questions, both from delegates who felt the Church’s policy should be more rigorous and others who felt the whole matter of judging some companies more ‘righteous’ than others was fraught with difficulty. But his talk certainly provoked plenty of debate.
On Sunday morning David Barclay spoke about community organizing, Corporate Social Responsibility and the common good. He is Faith in Public Life Officer for the Centre for Theology and Community in East London. His engagement with business has therefore been from the perspective of civil society, entailing involvement both in the Living Wage and Just Money campaigns.
David explained three elements in the community organizing cycle that he and his colleagues practise on a regular basis. First they listen carefully to community members. With regard to the debt issue this led the Centre to uncover some very powerful stories about individuals who had taken out payday loans and become victims of an exploitative system. It drew on people’s self-interest, but in a positive way which showed respect for a healthy self-interest and motivated a desire to change things for the better.
Second, the Centre does research. It identifies potential partners and talks to them: local councils, companies and politicians. Third, it takes action, which is ‘the oxygen of a campaign’. Finally, it promotes leadership development, which runs through all elements of the cycle.
David’s talk was transformational in shedding new light on Corporate Social Responsibility for many. To unleash the potential of CSR it is crucial to connect with people’s own stories and passions. It is important to build on the concerns that people who work for the company genuinely have, so that the causes companies support are authentic. David struck a powerful note when he said: “people react against a shallow reciprocity in CSR. The answer to this is a deep mutual reciprocity: to give more of ourselves and expect more in return”.
The second half of Sunday morning included a plenary session in which the conference were brought up-to-date with what was happening in several different ‘faith and work’ organizations, including but not only Faith in Business. For the second successive year, we had a delightful visit from some local Cambridge schoolchildren, talking about their activities as young entrepreneurs. The conference then concluded with a Communion service at which Michael Hodson preached powerfully on the book of Philemon.
As is our custom at these annual conferences, an invigorating time of stimulus and fellowship was had by all.