Tuesday 26 January 2010

Chocolate makers: who cares?

Every morning the news oscillates between impending planetary catastrophe and the trivia of new art installations or the abolition of the compulsory retirement age. It is like being on a flight where the pilot has announced that the plane is about to crash, yet the trolley dollies continue calmly handing out drinks and meals.

In the greater scheme of things, the impending takeover of Cadbury by American food conglomerate Kraft is clearly of minor significance. Yet it saddened me to see yet another great British company running up the white flag.

I became a keen consumer of Cadbury’s chocolate as a small boy. It proved the ideal training for my teenage graduation to a lifelong love affair with English real ale. Then, by the purest of flukes, I fell into jobs as a so-called investment analyst, and later as a public relations adviser, which involved visiting a great many food factories and breweries.

It seems quite bizarre now that so many of the major British public companies I dealt with continued to be led by descendants of their founders, even though the family shareholdings had usually dwindled into insignificance through the generations.

The last Cadbury vacated the chair of the company only in 2000. There used to be a whole raft of British brewers run by the dynasts of the so-called beerage. Even some of our banks reserved their top jobs for those with the right surnames.

As all this passes, I am torn between my meritocratic instincts and regret for the loss of those boardrooms filled with family portraits, the corporate collections of historic biscuit tins and other ephemera, and all those great beers that I will never taste again.

Does this latest triumph of unsentimental global capitalism represent progress? Surely the letter writer in “Voice of the North” on Friday who welcomed the Cadbury takeover had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he attacked its “undue priority given to the welfare of workers” and looked forward to a “hard-nosed maximisation of profit” under its new American owners.

Oddly, cocoa and philanthropy have proved natural bedfellows on both sides of the Atlantic. The famous concern for workers’ welfare at Quaker-founded Bournville was more than matched in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where America’s largest chocolate company remains under the control of the charitable trust that runs the town’s orphanage and school.

The key fact I absorbed during my years in the corporate world is that the most successful companies are usually those that care about their employees. Virtually all pay lip service to this nowadays, seemingly not appreciating the irony of these fine sentiments being expressed by a department with the chilling name of “human resources”.

Obviously there is a balance to be struck. It is in no-one’s interest to protect jobs in the short term by refusing to adopt new labour-saving technology, so ultimately putting the business at a hopeless competitive disadvantage.

But there is much to be said for this axiom: care for your employees and they will care for your customers, which is what the prosperity of any business ultimately depends upon. Many of our still “world class” retailers have founded their success on this simple principle.

If only consumers would return the compliment and care more about where and how the food and drink we buy is produced, the prospects for British famers and food producers would be enhanced immeasurably.

Kraft are paying £11.5 billion to get their hands on an “iconic” brand. They will take care not to devalue it by trying to fob us off with Cadbury’s Dairylea Milk. But they will undoubtedly produce their chocolate wherever they can do so most economically.

Some consumers have already been persuaded to favour “Fairtrade” products that supposedly guarantee a better return for growers in the Third World. Would it really hurt us to keep British workers in mind, too?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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