Meet the Human-Focused Leaders of 2021: Donald Moore, chair, Rowlinson

Donald Moore, chair of UK-based Rowlinson Knitwear, discusses greedy shareholders, inequality and putting people and planet before profit

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About Donald Moore

Donald Moore is chair of Rowlinson Knitwear. In a 22-year career at Rowlinson, he has led the business transformation from an underperforming family-owned business to a successful, wholly employee-owned business, certified as the North of England and Scotland’s highest scoring B Corporation. Donald is a champion for values-led business culture, the real Living Wage movement and sustainability. Following a transition of leadership to Neil Ward as managing director, he now plays a pivotal role in advocating for the B Corp movement and fairer business practices as a key factor in long-term business success across Greater Manchester and the wider North-west region.  

Edited transcript

We've been employee owned since 2015 and we recently became B Corp and a B Corp is basically, it's a triple bottom line. It's where you're legally obliged to balance people, planet and profit.

2008 was really interesting to us because we had the perfect storm. We had a cotton crisis in 2008 and the price of cotton went up threefold in a matter of weeks. So that was difficult. The global financial crisis was difficult anyway, but all that was made worse because of shareholder greed because they were just taking too much out and we didn't have enough in reserve.

We looked in 2008 about the best way to steer through the crisis. So, probably not untypical, really, the owner of the business said that we should become more ruthless. I think he thought that I was soft, really. He said we should squeeze the pips and we should be nasty. And I guess that's what most business owners would do in those circumstances, they would just squeeze and cut costs wherever possible.

So as the leader, I said what we were going to do, we were going to start putting our people and customers first before profit, but shareholders would come last. So they would no longer get the massive bonuses and dividends and salaries and expenses. It was no longer tenable for them to do that.

And in putting people and customers before profit led to our employee satisfaction going from 34%, which is dreadful, to 100% and customer satisfaction from 43% to 98% within three or four years.

And obvious to me is that our profits were much, much higher because of colleague and customer satisfaction. In fact, people say that our customer satisfaction is world-class and it has been now for probably about eight years consistently.

It's true to say that in our last five or six years, our profits are consistently seven times what they were in 2008. And I think that's obviously that's pretty good management, but it's also everyone in the company pulling together and all working for the same aims. And what we say is this year's customer satisfaction is next year's profit. Because if you've got the loyalty and the goodwill from customers, then that means the world and there's so much trust. And that leads to profit.

We do some pretty strange things. We do this thing when we're hosting events and we ask people to guess what our absenteeism is. And often everyone says, oh it's 1%. It's nothing. It's 2%. And what we say is actually we don't measure it.

We always say that if you really care for people, then you shouldn't be targeting people to be in work when they shouldn't be.

And the fact that some organisations give bonuses, more money, to those with a perfect absence record is ridiculous to me. So we thought it would be counterproductive to measure absenteeism.

In 2015 we were doing well and from time to time we think about what's the worst, what's our biggest risk. What's the worst thing that could happen? And at that point we thought the worst thing that could happen was that the owners of the company could sell it.

And the leadership and all the people really had done a brilliant job in transforming the company to one that was very profitable with a great reputation. So we looked at that and rather than doing a management buyout, we decided to approach the shareholders to become the majority at the time employee owned so we made them an offer that they accepted.

So that meant that we couldn't be sold again. But it also meant that everything for the future was for the good of everyone and being employee owned we don't pay fat cat bonuses, we retain more profits and that sees us through when things get tough.

What we started to do many years ago was to make sure that the lower paid were really looked after.

So we pay the real, what we call the real living wage, to everyone. It's the least anyone in the country should get. We pay everyone's pension in full, 8%. And I think they'll really appreciate that in the years to come because the state pension is pitiful now, but in decades to come it will be worthless. So I think we're really proud that we do that.

We import products from Bangladesh and from Egypt. We care about people around the world and we care about the workers in the factories that make for us. We care more about those workers than we do about the factory owners. What we've done is, typically we might buy all the people in the factory something for the house, like a kettle or an iron or something, but in Bangladesh when we looked we saw that there's a real problem with clean water in Bangladesh.

Not untypical of us we look to see what the rich people do about it and what they do they buy these big industrial waterfilter machines. Not these little things that you can buy in the supermarket.

At that point eight or nine years ago, we decided to gift everyone with a year's service in that factory, it's probably about 300-400 people, a gift of a waterfilter machine. And we got Unilever in because that's who we bought the machines from and Unilever do great work in the world as well. And they've just announced that all their supply chain will be living wage around the world by 2030, which is something that we're on with as well. It's not unreasonable to think that we've helped to extend people's lives and possibly save lives as well. And I think buyers have got responsibility to look after the workers in their supply chain.

I think our colleagues love what we do around the world. They have a real sense of pride in how we're helping to improve people's lives. Given the choice I think lots of people in our country would prefer to buy from brands that take care of their supply chain and everything.

I think the pandemic has probably driven this faster. I think that brands and employers are more diverse now. You've got such a range. You've got the ones that just clearly don't care and the ones that really do. And I think the pandemic has helped to define who those people are.

I think for businesses that really want to improve their sustainability, rather than just telling people it's at the heart of what they do, that's as bland and probably as untruthful as "people are our biggest asset". If you have to say those things, you're usually not. I think. The best way to improve things environmentally, obviously, is to measure. So a few years ago, with a company called PlanetMark, we measured the impact that we had. We measure emissions, we've started to measure our tier one suppliers around the world, as well about what they do. And it's only when you measure that you can look to improve what you have.

Lots of people confuse sustainability with using less plastic, carrier bags and stuff. It's part of that, but it's much bigger and it's not just about the environment - sustainability is as much about people as well. So I think for people to understand what that is and what impact they have at work and at home, that's where to start.

This interview is part of The People Space's Meet the Human-Focused Leaders of 2021 series in partnership with management consultancy 10Eighty. To watch more in the series please click here

Published 2 June 2021
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