Face to Face: Nurturing the noble business

It’s perhaps sad comment on the status of business in the social psyche that “noble” is not the most obvious adjective you might apply to it. Dick Brunton would like to change that.
The co-founder and leader of market research company Colmar Brunton believes business ‘can’ be noble calling – though admits it often isn’t.
“Most businesses are too inward focused – they are focused on making money by driving profit, by driving costs out. I’m not saying they don’t have to do these things but I think business should be great. At the end of the day what is business but bunch of people serving other people.”
It is, he avers, one of the biggest issues that faces New Zealand business – that too many companies are slaves to bottom line thinking or to offshore masters.
“They are quite soul-less and you can tell that pretty much when you walk in.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that Brunton can summon up relevant market research to illustrate his views. His three-decade-old company is leader when it comes to collecting and evaluating consumer opinion. Turns out that when asked to rate business on scale of its positive/negative qualities couple of years back, some 40 percent of survey respondents perceived it as necessary evil – or words to that effect.
“About one quarter of teachers thought that,” notes Brunton.
He can understand why. There is an apparent ruthlessness about business – and there have certainly been times when he’s had to make people redundant (four years ago the closure of Colmar Brunton’s North Shore call centre saw the loss of 50 jobs).
“I’m not saying those hard decisions don’t have to be made but there’s way of doing it. And the bottom line is that business should be about making difference in the world.”
The company’s brand slogan “Better Business, Better World” is “not just pretty thing”, he says. “We mean it. We’d like our business to be bit of lighthouse modelling the way. I think that love and profit can be partners – I don’t think they are adversaries.”
Brunton owns that his attitude to business changed fairly radically when he became born-again Christian back in the 1980s. “I didn’t start doing things differently because I became Christian: I just became different – more caring and loving person.”
He’s since read lot about leadership (see box story “Recipes for leadership”) and these days likes to quote the John Seely Brown maxim that “the job of leadership today is not just to make money, it’s to make meaning”.
It’s philosophy his own company seems to thrive on. Colmar Brunton is both values based and successful. From starter kit of two (himself and former business partner Pauline Colmar) in 1981, the company now has 108 fulltime employees in New Zealand and brand with widespread recognition.
That despite the fact his was career that started pretty much “by accident” when he applied for job as account director with ACNielsen knowing almost nothing about market research. Brunton quickly discovered it was natural fit.
“I always had penchant for maths and found I loved extracting meaning from numbers.”
He was poached by Unilever to run its market research company and did that for three years before the urge to do his own thing won out. When Unilever didn’t come to the party with stake in its business, he “stuck my neck out bit and explored going independent”.
Pauline Colmar expressed an interest and their skills – hers in qualitative research and attention to detail, his with clients and big picture thinking – proved great combo. They set up in little house on the corner of Lake and Esmonde Roads – since lost to motorway extension. It was fairly “boutiquey”, smiles Brunton with its puddle-prone, gravel access – but it hit the right market nerve and grew.
John Shanahan came on board as partner and the firm expanded into Australia, becoming pioneers of consumer sensory evaluation in the Australasian region. Colmar left in 1989 and in 2002, Brunton and Shanahan undertook share swap that left the latter with the Australian business. Since then, the NZ company has gained global reach through its partnership with Millward Brown.
But, in fast changing industry, Colmar Brunton can boast remarkable stability in its personnel.
“Of our top staff, I think the average tenure is around 12 years and you know the proudest thing for me is that virtually all my senior people are shareholders – they’ve put skin in the game,” says Brunton.
“I do believe in inclusive capitalism. I think we are pretty much unique in the Millward Brown world. Initially they wanted to buy 100 percent of us but I didn’t want that. It took them while but they are now happy for up to 30 percent of shares to be held by staff, which is an enormous breakthrough. It makes difference to people…”
And making difference is where it’s at with Brunton. As he stated in recent articles, this is the age of standing for something, for pursuing the big ideal and “creating profit by creating purpose”. It’s stance backed by research showing that companies who put customer experience first outperform their competitors; that brand differentiation goes hand in hand with innovation; and that customers increasingly want and recognise authenticity.
Colmar Brunton CEO Jacqueline Ireland has her own take on this philosophy, firmly pinning her value set to business sustainability. She sees the company as advocating for consumers, ensuring their voice is heard. The company’s “Better Business Report” initiative – exploring consumer perceptions of sustainability and how it is impacting on their behaviour and choices – is good example.
“We decided this was an important subject and there were no New Zealand stats; it’s now in its fourth year and starting to get some traction. I think sustainability is critical for all business – particularly New Zealand business.”
In terms of brand authenticity, Ireland believes this country is putting its own at risk – in failing to address issues like water use and quality, or in falling behind on global quality standards now demanded for sustainable and organic produce.
“This is an economic issue that I think is being ignored. Every organisation we talk to that is trying to create traction in these areas finds it battle. There are no incentives for people to do the right thing. Despite that, consumers are making those choices increasingly for themselves.”
Sustainability is not the only WIG (company acronym for Wildly Important Goal) Ireland is wearing this year. Like Brunton, she is interested in the process of leadership – reflecting his belief that economic goals, while important, are not sufficient.
When she spoke to NZ Management in March, the company was preparing for its in-house conference during which each department and individual comes up with what they “want to be famous for” in the coming year – identifying their own WIGS.
She’s not talking profits.
“We certainly have lot of financial goals but we treat those as organisation wide… those goals are very dear to us but they are collective goals. This is about giving people an opportunity to own something, to do something meaningful that has an impact – because it’s what they have particular passion for.
“I know that through my working life if I focused on one thing, I’ve always achieved it. If you disperse energy too widely then you end up feeling like you are treading water.”
One wider company goal at the moment is around effective knowledge sharing – fairly vital issue in such rapidly changing area. It’s challenge to keep up with new methodologies, different presentation techniques – and technology that is heading into exciting new territory.
“Neuroscience is good example of technology enabling us to commercialise exciting new techniques. For example, eye tracking is now standard on some of our products, and facial recognition that enab

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