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15 May, 2012

It’s not about making money, says James Miller, Non-Executive Chairman and former Managing Director of Abermed.

James Miller
James Miller
He spoke to Anjali Guptara about his commitment to core values, at a Civil Society Forum hosted by Initiatives of Change in London on 19 April 2012.

For the last 12 years, I’ve been working in Abermed, an occupational health company that provides medical services to businesses and organisations. Over these years, I’ve developed an interest in how organisations work, particularly how they define their purpose and their core values. I see those as absolutely crucial to the success of an organisation, as well as employee engagement. The story of what we did at Abermed is basically the story of how we engaged with our employees to develop a shared purpose and then achieved great things.

Abermed had been going as a small business for approximately 10 years before I joined, with a team of only 10 people. Then we started to grow from 2001, from about £800,000 annual turnover to £22 million today. Aberdeen was our core base, hence the company’s name, but we’re now all over the UK – we have clinics in London, Southampton, Great Yarmouth and throughout Scotland. I’m now non-exec Chairman, based in Southampton. I handed over the Managing Director role to the Finance Director and he’s now running the business. I still spend a couple of days a week on Abermed. I also give talks and do mentoring. I’m also involved in setting up a charity to do business education in Kenya, as a way to alleviate poverty. It’s called ‘Aspire for Africa’.

I am involved with the Deming Learning Network in Scotland, where I’m the Chairman. Through that I got to know of Esther Ridsdale, co-founder of the Civil Society Forum. Having moved south two years ago I connected with the CSF and was asked to share my experiences.

I’m very keen to see people looking at how to enable companies to become employee-owned, because there are currently a lot of barriers to achieving that. Some of it requires changing legislation. One of the issues is funding because the City tends to fund things, particularly private equity, by taking ownership. But if the ownership is with the employees then how does money get invested for development and growth? Those areas are real challenges.

To me, the most important point is that any organisation or any group, whether it’s in business or anywhere, has to establish what its purpose is and that then needs to be understood by everybody involved – a shared purpose is a way to achieve great things. Defining the core values of how the business operates is also vital. It’s that simple. The only rule that I have about ‘purpose’ is that there’s only one thing that it can NOT be and that is ‘making money’ – ‘making money’ is not a purpose, money is a tool of business, money is something that is used by business but it cannot be the purpose in itself.

That is quite controversial as a lot of people think that it is the purpose of being in business but I don’t believe it is and I think that’s where our society is going wrong, in that it is focussing on ‘making money’ rather than ‘making money by achieving your purpose’. That is what we found to work at Abermed. It does interlink with business ethics to a large extent, and this philosophy moves you away from purely money as the measure of success, so that you measure other things as well. Money is of course absolutely crucial but it is different from a mercenary philosophy.

A lot of what I do goes back to my childhood. I spent my first seven years in Africa, so I got interested in Africa then. I was born in Glasgow but I was nine months old when we moved to Zimbabwe. My father administered schools and hospitals for a mission. So there was a medical and educational connection with Africa from the very beginning. Then I was educated in London. When the family returned from Africa, we set up in business here, and I worked in that family firm. So a lot of the principles of how we worked at Abermed were ones that we had had at the family business, but I wasn’t really aware of other business models. The ethics that my parents had brought to the family business were embedded in what we did – it was a counter-cultural model.

I then became interested in other organisations and how they worked, reading material on what works and what doesn’t, what companies out-perform their peers and why. I developed a particular interest in employee-owned organisations. That is a way of getting real staff engagement and it solves a lot of the issues that cause conflict in some companies between management and the workforce, because the whole company is owned by the workers. But it’s not as simple as that; there are a lot of issues in that as well, with people understanding the purpose and core value of the business. I try to make things simple; our business was quite complicated but one of the things to do is to make things simple, so that everybody understands what you, as a team, are about.

When I joined Abermed it didn’t have that culture but when I took over running it, which was after I’d been there a year or two, we started talking about our purpose and our core values. I came from a business rather than a pharmaceutical background but I had studied bio-chemistry and nutrition at university so I understood the science. A key factor was getting everybody to understand their role in the organisation. We demonstrated this as a living system and that was really the key to how we developed, making everybody feel valued as an essential part of the whole thing. This is especially challenging in the medical world as it tends to have a very strong hierarchy, for example within the NHS. So that was one of the issues we had to deal with. Embedding such operational principles in that business when it was small meant that the employees stayed with it right through as it grew. That was one of the fascinating things, seeing the purpose and core values pervade the company. Even though there are now very few of the original employees amongst our 300 staff, they all have those core values. So those values became truly embedded in the organisation.

We had been very keen to become an employee-owned business but weren’t able to achieve that, which was frustrating, so that’s one of the reasons why I’m really interested in looking at how businesses can achieve that and can be enabled to do so.

Ideally, as a result of the Civil Society Forum, people who are interested in the concept of employee-ownership can start to have an influence on government and in the City, to enable investment in employee-owned businesses, as well as education in how businesses should operate, i.e. focussing on their purpose. So there’s a huge amount to do but this is a good start.

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