Deja Vu

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West Riding House – another story of win/win in Leeds?

West Riding House in Leeds

I met yesterday with a tenant of the ‘affordable’ West Riding House, an iconic 1970s office block in Leeds City Centre, which I believe is owned by Moorfield (a UK ‘real estate’ investor, developer and private equity fund manager, with some £3 billion currently under management) and Holbeck Land .

It caught my eye because several organisations I know have recently moved in, some of whom are extremely cost and value conscious.  The building has become ‘affordable’ because it is cheaper, I am told, for the owner of the building to encourage occupancy at a low rent in order to avoid paying business rates on an unnoccupied building.  A nice win/win.  The owners save a few bob  and the organisations get refurbed office space in the heart of the city centre that usually they could never afford.

Except of course there are losers.

Other landlords (generally owners of more modest estates on the edge of the city and in the doughnut of despair) are losing their rents; the communities in which these organisations used to be based are losing much needed trade.

And the Council are losing out on the rates, presumably.

When, and if, the economy picks up and office space becomes more valuable these new tenants will probably have to move back out or face increased rents.  I just hope that the buildings that they have left behind are still in a reasonable condition.   And if they have fallen into disrepair as resources are sucked from the suburbs into the centre, never mind, perhaps we can negotiate an asset transfer project to bring them back to the community.

I am sure for many tenants the decision to move into West Riding House is a simple, straightforward and commercial one, driven by their business aims and intended social impacts, and their ability to exploit short term notice periods.  For others it must have been a much more difficult judgement.

In these hard times we all have to do what we can to get by.  But we need to understand how the system in Leeds, and every other city, can suck resources into the centre and leave the fringes further marginalised.

Meanwhile Time

All over the city there are similar examples of landlords agreeing low rents that allow ‘unusual suspects’ access to resources that they usually could never afford, to do exciting projects that would probably never get off the ground in better economic times.

The key question for me?

Strategically are these projects just about meanwhile time, merely setting up a low cost ‘holding pattern’ until ‘normal’ levels of economic activity resume?  Or are they ‘hotbeds’ in which we can incubate a generation of new social and cultural entrepreneurs who will help Leeds make a real transformation?  Time will tell of course, although those that own the assets are pretty clear about the ‘meanwhile’ nature of these arrangements.

With the recent Resolution Foundation Report suggesting how the poor have ‘missed out’ on the benefits of economic growth over the last 30 years, I can’t help but think in the medium term, unless we are careful, this is a phenomena in which those that are used to winning will get to win again.

A Compass for LEPs…

LEPs are of course Local ENTERPRISE Partnerships.

But enterprise cannot be developed without full attention being paid to its wider impact on nature, society and personal health and well-being.  David Cameron has talked more than once about economic progress needing to be balanced with progress in well-being.  Pursuing the growth of GDP outside of this wider social context would seem to be a fool’s errand.

An enterprise policy that grows GDP, but increases illness or is not environmentally sustainable or increases inequality in our society may not be a good thing.

So, how about developing a simple compass that can form the basis of a practical evaluation for new enterprise proposals?  I was very taken by this simple framework that Danone use when evaluating their innovation projects…

N = Nature – will the development respect natural limits?  Is it environmentally sustainable?

S = Social – will the development lead to improvements in society?  Fair wages, good governance, increased equality, better access to finance to all  etc.  Will the goods and services produced enhance life in our communities?

E= Economic – will the project work economically? What payback periods are we looking at here?  How can we encourage doing the right thing even when payback periods may take longer than usual business conventions would allow?

W= Wellbeing or health – the Danone mission is to improve health for the greatest number of people through food.  If the project does not fit the mission then it will not move forward.

Smart Lord Sugar…

Nice move by Lord Sugar to choose Tom Pellereau as his business partner.  Seriously nice move because Tom’s skills complement those of the Lord Sugar rather than replicate them.

So many people go into business with people who share similar skills, values and attitudes leading to a very lop-sided business indeed.  Perhaps half a dozen people who understand the product or service, but NONE who really love marketing, sales, financial management, compliance or governance.

And I don’t think that Lord Sugar is a product man.  At least not any more.  He is now a ‘sales and marketing man’ a distribution expert. Someone who can get products into the hands of the masses.

I just hope that poor old Tom is given the chance to develop products that not only make him wealthy, but also make him proud and enhance the lives of the people who buy them.

This would indeed be progress.

A Plea to LEP Board Members

Do you ever question the belief that more economic growth is the only route to recovery?

That we can consume our way to a ‘better’ future by simply consuming more stuff, more quickly?

Do you ever consider that perhaps it is time to at least be open to the merits of leading in a different direction?

I am neither anti-capitalist, nor anti-growth but recognise these are double edged swords rather than cure-alls.

Working with Danone recently they introduced me to their compass test of business development, where any change has to meet the challenges of the four compass points.

  • N = Nature – can the proposed development be sustained in a one planet scenario? Does it fit with the laws of nature?
  • S = Social – will it lead to a socially just and improved situation?
  • E = Economic – will we see a return on investment? Usual investment and payback protocols apply and can be flexed
  • W = Wellbeing – will the proposed project increase health and wellbeing for the most people

Yes, the E matters. But not at any cost. So please encourage the LEPs to explore scenarios much more interesting than just the accrual of GDP.

Be more than just mere ‘whipping boys’ for the Treasury, and help us to find a genuine New Deal.

Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious…(unless you are policy wonk or their lackey…)

  1. Not every small business or micro-enterprise owner needs a mentor.
  2. Mentoring is NOT the only helping relationship.
  3. Good mentors are rarely trained in ‘mentoring’, nor are they picked from a register.
  4. Successful mentors are usually selected from within the pre-existing network of the mentee.  They are spotted and developed as someone from  whom the mentee really wants to learn.
  5. Mentoring is an intermittent rather than a continuous relationship.
  6. Access to good mentors is usually restricted and respectful rather than a tradeable commodity.
  7. The success of the mentorship is usually down to the mentee rather than the mentor.  Good mentees know how to choose a mentor and manage the relationship with them to get the learning and the introductions that they need.
  8. The commoditisation of mentoring is not a good thing.
  9. Mentors are not coaches, advisers, consultants, counsellors or facilitators.  People looking to learn and develop themselves and/or their organisations should think carefully about the kind of ‘help’ they need.
  10. We should help people explore what they want to learn and how they are going to learn it – rather than prescribe yet another ‘cure-all’ that happens to be ‘affordable’.
  11. We should focus our efforts on building social learning contexts and helping people manage their learning processes rather than setting up registers and schemes.
  12. If the national association of image consultants got their lobbying act together I am sure we might all end up being encouraged to use a national register of image consultants in pursuit of GDP.

If you are interested in implementing ill thought through policy and exploiting it as way to make a few bob please do not get in touch.  If on the other you are serious about building a context in which people  can really learn then I would love to hear from you.

Just leave a comment below.

Danone Think Tankery

Last week saw a trip down to London to join a dialogue with

  • Myriam Cohen-Welgryn, Danone Vice-President Nature,
  • Laura Palmeiro, Vice-President Nature Finance,
  • Bernard Giraud, Vice-President Sustainability and Shared Value Creation and
  • Laurence Foucher Danone New Media Manager.

The Danone team were joined by

There was no clearly mapped out process or agenda relying instead on getting some interested people into a convivial setting and seeing where the conversation went.  In both cases I suspect that some real learning accrued on both sides.

Once again Danone showed an incredible openness in sharing with us some of their projects and challenges relating to food security, poverty alleviation, health and sustainability and showed how several projects had moved on from our last round of discussions with them.  Highlights for me included investments from their 100m Euro ‘Nature Fund’ to support the development of Cooperatives of  Ukrainian Farmers to supply the high quality milk required to keep the Danone Production lines in full swing.  Danone invested in milking equipment to be shared by small farmers through the cooperative structure and animal welfare standards and husbandry.  These investments were made with no requirement to tie framers into contracts with Danone.  Also Danone say that paying these farmers cooperatives a fair price for milk ensures the long term stability of supply which is more important to them than any short term profits that might be gained through price squeezing.

I was also intrigued by  their research into the fatty acid content of milk and how this can be correlated with the production of methane allowing accurate offsetting of methane production based on the actual methane production of each herd.  Now I am not an expert on off-setting and have a lay persons suspicion of how much can be achieved through this methodology.  Can we possibly plant enough mangrove, mangoes and other carbon fixing crops to ever truly offset production?  The whole conversation about carbon trading was one that left me a little cold.  I am far from convinced that putting a price on carbon is really the way forward.  Especially now that it can be speculated upon.  I am of the school that thinks the next great bubble to burst will be the carbon market….I hope I am wrong and am certainly no expert in this field.

But perhaps most impressive part of the conversation for me was around needing to re-connect consumers to the production process, the reality of farming and food production.  A simple realisation that for Danone, and the rest of us, ‘Nature IS our business’ and simple tools for ensuring that this realisation is that the heart of innovation in the company.  So for example they are using a wonderfully simple compass to provide a test for new developments:

N = Nature – will the development respect nature?

S = Social – will the development lead to improvements in society?  Fair wages, good governance etc

E= Economic – will the project work economically? (I was impressed by Danone’s willingness to flex their normal investment rules to allow projects that would only work with a more generous interpretation of ‘payback periods’)

W= wellbeing or health – the Danone mission is to improve health for the greatest number of people through food.  If the project does not fit the mission then it will not move forward.

My guess is that this compass will be well understood throughout the business and used to assess new business developments and ensure that balances and tensions are effectively managed.

It is a strange phenomena for me to rub against a corporate whom I like, respect and trust.  Generally I am always lifting up the carpets looking for where the dirt has been hidden.  And still questions remain for me at least about the bottling and distribution of mineral water in rich countries (Danone are behind both Evian and Volvic I believe).  But whenever I meet Danoners – be they ‘top brass’ or ‘frontline’ I am always impressed by their passion, openness (‘we have many challenges and we don’t have the answers but we will experiment…’) and commitment to co-invention of ideas and thinking through conversation.

I am already looking forward to the next conversation…when we hope to get some more skeptics involved