The free market model certainly has its benefits, but the recession is highlighting its limits too, says Mark Price
I believe that without first-class suppliers you can’t be a first-class retailer and always find it inspiring to meet the businesses whose bread and butter is, literally, supplying our bread and butter – and fruit and vegetables and groceries.
Last week I got together with some of our suppliers at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Conference in Birmingham. I was there to express my concern for the future of British farming in light of the legacy left by the post-war rush to produce ever-increasing quantities of cheaper food. This includes a fatter population, fewer, more indebted farms and an impoverished countryside in terms of the environment and the vitality of rural communities.
This policy has also been to the detriment of our appreciation of the skill, effort and expense that goes into producing our daily bread. Farming is as much an art as a science and we need to make sure that everyone understands the true value, not just the cost, of what we put on our plates.
At the end of January Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy wrote an interesting piece for The Daily Telegraph, in which he made some excellent points in defence of the free market. I too am a firm believer in the market and, far from criticising Terry in my NFU speech as some have suggested, I firmly agree with his premise that free trade and consumer power can be a benefit to society.
But I also believe that recent events have exposed the weaknesses in the shareholder-focused business model and – to paraphrase the famous sentiments of fictional Wall Street villain Gordon Gekko – proven that greed isn’t good for anyone. Free trade and consumer power are important, but so is a fair deal for all stakeholders.
We’re not tied to the short-term needs of external shareholders and take the long view in everything we do. We work hard to build proper sustainable, balanced relationships with all our stakeholders, from employees – or partners, as we are all known – to customers, suppliers and the communities in which we trade.
Because we can devote our energies to making sure we’re the best grocer on the high street rather than worrying about how analysts rate our shares, we can invest in keener value, a first-class shopping environment, great service and the quality of the food we sell. Our top place in the Which? Consumer Satisfaction Survey last month shows that this approach continues to appeal to customers.
As the recession bites, the term “new capitalism” is being widely used in the media. My interpretation of this is simply that when the green shoots of an economic spring finally do appear, the zeitgeist will dictate a more measured and responsible trading climate. One where many more companies will play the long game to benefit the stakeholder majority, rather than looking for quick wins for the shareholder minority.
Mark Price is managing director of Waitrose