Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business
 

interview

realism and openness is Baker’s recipe for success

July 2007

Kingfisher’s head of corporate responsibility tells EP how a pragmatic and transparent approach has helped bring the group up to a leadership position in the CSR field


When a new ranking declared the global home improvement retail chain Kingfisher the ‘greenest company in Britain’ last month, Ray Baker, the group’s director of social responsibility, may have been excused for breaking into a satisfied grin. Instead he was probably wearing a wry smile.

The accolade was bestowed upon Kingfisher by the respected research body Ethical Investment Research Services, whose rankings were published in association with The Independent newspaper. So it was no throwaway honour. But Baker, who has been in his current post at Kingfisher since 2004 after rising through the ranks of the human resources department, finds it hard to believe that his company merits such a mark.

‘It would be untrue to say we’re not happy to be in that position, but we know that we haven’t got it right yet, and we’re perfectly willing to tell everyone about the things we don’t do well,’ he says. ‘In all honesty it doesn’t feel like we’re in that position because of all the things we’ve got to do. But I suppose what we do have is a very transparent corporate responsibility programme, and that, as much as anything, has put us in the lead.’

Baker acknowledges that Kingfisher’s status in the CSR world – it is additionally a platinum company in Business in the Community’s latest Corporate Responsibility Index – is largely down to its UK retail arm, B&Q, and the fact that it had a head start. ‘B&Q has been operating with a social and environmental agenda since 1990, and that early mover status makes a difference,’ says Baker. ‘But we have operating companies in countries such as Russia [under the Castorama brand] and Turkey [Koctas] that are at early stages of their brand and working within cultures where corporate responsibility isn’t a particular priority. So we have a way to go.’

Nonetheless, Baker is at pains to point out that B&Q, which with the Screwfix and Trade Depot brands in the UK generates 49 per cent of Kingfisher’s £8.7billion ($17.4bn) annual turnover, is no longer the group’s only mover on socially responsible business behaviour. ‘If you’d suggested that to me two or three years ago then I’d have said most definitely, but the other operating companies are upping their work on CSR. The challenge now is to provide basic frameworks within which they can operate.’ To that end, Kingfisher has devised a ‘Steps to Responsible Growth’ programme that sets out milestones and key performance indicators on which the companies have to report back to HQ on a regular basis.

All Kingfisher’s operating companies, for instance, are required to have an action plan in place by 2008 to identify products containing potentially dangerous chemicals and to investigate opportunities for their removal or substitution.

Other measures are battery collection boxes and energy efficiency measures in stores in Russia, recycling of plastic packaging into garden waste bags by Castorama Poland, and a new partnership between B&Q China and Greenpeace to source sustainable timber in the country. Castorama in France has developed policies on timber, product impact and relations in the local neighbourhoods of its 98 stores.

Baker says that Kingfisher has been careful not to set over-ambitious benchmarks. ‘We prefer to set a realistic target rather than a difficult one,’ he explains. ‘It’s very easy to go for zero this and zero that. It looks good. But they are very difficult to achieve and don’t necessarily help. By the same token we prefer short-term rather than long-term targets. I suspect a lot of executives set long-term targets with half a thought that they won’t be around when the deadline comes up.’

He recommends mixing realism with a dash of idealism. ‘Currently the pragmatic side takes the lead here, and why wouldn’t it if we’re dealing with companies in countries that don’t have a visionary approach?

‘But we do have a visionary project with Forum for the Future in which we’re taking the board of directors through a set of scenarios, painting a picture of what the world might look like in 10–15 years time, and considering what we have to do to make our business sustainable. It’s very interesting, although you have to be careful because it can be seen as a little bit soft. Our board has held workshops with Jonathan Porritt, and hopefully something will come out of that in the next few months.’ The board is now engaged financially as well as intellectually, having agreed from this month to take corporate responsibility objectives into account when setting the remuneration of senior executives.

‘All the CEOs in the operating companies are now coming to us for advice,’ says Baker. ‘That may be one of the keys to Kingfisher getting to grips with things outside B&Q, so that we really can justify any position at the top of the rankings.’




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