UK: For God and Mammon.

UK: For God and Mammon. - Clifford Longley's five boardroom believers disprove the theory that people with religious convictions are too soft-hearted for the ruthless world of commerce.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Clifford Longley's five boardroom believers disprove the theory that people with religious convictions are too soft-hearted for the ruthless world of commerce.

You cannot serve God and Mammon, declares the New Testament: the love of money is the root of all evil. The Old Testament says much the same, and these ancient ideas still ring bells in the culture of modern society. The very notion of a successful businessman having a sincere religious faith has been made to look like a glaring contradiction.

Ask around for examples of successful business executives who are known to be religious and you will soon meet a wall of sheepishness. 'There are plenty of them about,' says one source, 'but they wouldn't want their colleagues to know it.'

I have never come across so many myths in such a short space of time. This is one of them: it boils down to the idea that people with religious convictions are too soft-hearted for the ruthless world of commerce, and once their beliefs become known their careers will not prosper.

Myth number two is a misunderstanding of the choice between God and Mammon. Even if you're not supposed to worship money, it doesn't mean you have to worship poverty instead. The creation of wealth is commanded by God in Genesis, as a continuation of His own creation of the universe: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.'

The third misconception is more a half-truth than a lie: that religion and ethics are entirely separate. There are many successful executives who are strongly committed to business ethics and have no religious convictions. But I doubt whether there are any in this class who have no fundamental values, no sense of justice. Perhaps they take their values not from the Bible but from, say, Adam Smith. But where did the Presbyterian Smith get his from?

Many business persons, of various religious persuasions and none, express the fear that we are living off the moral capital of the past and that sooner or later it will run out.

The market for morality is demand-led, it seems, and it is getting a bit late to attend to the supply side. Few - whether they are believers or not - seem to doubt that this is the core business of religion.

At the very least, ethics is about a set of rules that people are expected to follow. But business leaders with religious convictions claim a more profound connection. Religion shapes who you are, they say. That in turn shapes how you act. It isn't a matter of looking up answers in a book; it is 'being true to your principles', as one put it, 'but deeper than that, being true to yourself'.

Judging by my small sample, the decency, good humour and humanity of those who bring faith into business marks them out, for want of a better term, as centred individuals. They could surely handle adversity as well as they have coped with success.

SIR STANLEY KALMS, DIXONS

Every year when he starts a new diary, Sir Stanley Kalms copies out a handwritten note from the one he has just finished: 'Business exists only to fulfil human needs and social responsibilities.' He is vague about how long he has been doing this or where the quote originally came from, but he is not vague about its importance. 'This is the essence of my Jewish business ethics,' says the man who helped to set up and fund the chair in business ethics at the London Business School.

'We were concerned about the outlook of these young MBAs leaving the Business School,' he says. 'All they seemed to think about was profit. Jewish thinking is about responsibility and caring for people.'

Kalms is a trustee of the Jewish Association for Business Ethics (JABE) where Jewish businessmen can exchange ideas. He agrees with the proposition that conscience is a faculty that improves with exercise. Thus in one its publications, for exercise purposes, JABE poses a hypothetical choice.

Hearing a supplier is in trouble and at your mercy, do you tell him you are cutting 5% off what you have agreed to pay him, or do you make sure there is no delay in sending out his next cheque? 'Neither,' says Kalms.

'You ask him to come and see you, or go and see him, to find out where things have gone wrong. You might help him. But bailing him out might not be the right thing to do.' The important thing is to interest yourself personally in such matters, to take responsibility.

These are his ethical instincts, and he tries to cultivate a climate inside Dixons accordingly. He agrees that the chairman is the conscience of the company but also that 'Jews in business have had to be extra careful because of past prejudice against them'.

Nevertheless ethics have to be kept up to date. For instance, says Kalms, advertising, which involves persuading people to want things they don't have - is technically forbidden in the Talmudic tradition. That was because in medieval peasant societies advertising would make people covet goods they could not have, which would be morally bad for them.

Modern advertising creates a demand that can be satisfied, and is therefore not immoral.

'All the same,' says Kalms, 'we tell our people to 'present' our merchandise, not to 'sell' it. No high pressure.' Or not too much, anyway.

DAVID OWEN, RUBERY OWEN HOLDINGS

'God is already in industry,' says David Owen. 'We don't take him there, we find him there.' Like his father, Alfred, whom he followed into the family firm, he is a Conservative Evangelical Anglican. He is well known to his employees as a Christian, with a brand of Christianity corresponding to what used to be called the Protestant work ethic, and there is no doubt where some of his family's industrial drive comes from.

As a big Midlands metal-basher, he was once responsible for employing thousands, though the company of which he is now group chairman, Rubery Owen Holdings, has since concentrated on specialist vehicle distribution. Along the way there was a shake-out, with redundancies.

As a Christian, he was accused of being a hypocrite for making people unemployed. He feels that this was a kind of Christian blackmail. 'The redundancies hurt,' he says, 'but it was necessary to lose some staff in order to save the jobs of more.'

He believes wealth creation is sanctioned by the Bible, but regrets that many Anglicans do not see it that way. 'The Church needs to understand industry, not to dismiss it. There is nothing wrong with making money - I like businesses to make money. This is fulfilling God's will.' The trouble is not wealth itself, but the way it is made and the use that is made of it.

Religious allegiance imposes burdens on businessmen that are not borne by non-believers; and this does sometimes involve sacrificing profit for the sake of principle. To some, this may not seem ruthless enough. As chairman, he regards himself as the conscience of the company. In a tight corner such as a tense negotiation, he mentally utters a quick prayer - what he calls 'shooting an arrow to God'.

The other side of the coin from not being regarded as ruthless is being seen as a man of principle. But 'there are no perfect solutions, we just have to get as close as possible'. Even 'always tell the truth' is too simplistic. Once when a rumour of an imminent deal started to get around, he had to look a questioner in the eye and lie. If he hadn't done so - and 'no comment' would merely have confirmed the rumour - the man could have made a killing on the Stock Exchange and the trust of those involved in the deal would have been betrayed.

Necessary, perhaps. But it wasn't this Christian businessman's favourite moment.

JOHN ADSHEAD, J SAINSBURY

'Jesus would have made a good manager,' says John Adshead, the director responsible for human resources at Sainsbury's. 'He would have blown away the cobwebs.' By this, he explains, he means the lack of clear thinking that stops people getting to the main point.

Adshead was educated at an Essex grammar school run by Jesuits. They taught him it was not just a question of how you behaved in a stratified sphere called ethics, but who you were as a person.

He says it would be contrary to his Catholic convictions to allow a teenager to stack shelves or push a trolley in Sainsbury's for the rest of his or her life without providing that individual with the opportunity for learning or training. 'The company has a responsibility to that person to see he is equipped to move on,' he declares.

Adshead makes no apology for his Catholicism. 'I feel that the example of someone like Cardinal Hume has made it seem a respectable, even admirable, label to wear.' After the publication in 1996 of The Common Good, a statement of the Catholic Church's doctrinal position on politics and economics, he was asked by his parish priest to give three lectures on the subject. He found the document useful 'though I couldn't quite agree with every word of it'. He is also a director of the Tablet, the Catholic weekly.

The main difficulty with having a reputation for a personal faith, he finds, is not that people might look down on him for it, but that they might look up to him too much, expecting more than he can deliver. 'They might think I was a bit of a hypocrite sometimes.'

Sainsbury's directors talk about ethical matters a good deal, and regard it as 'good business to be ethical'. It is part of the Sainsbury's culture and his Catholicism is a contribution to the whole. Company policy gives him no great problems. 'But I suppose I would have to draw the line if, say, a do-it-yourself abortion kit was on the market and Sainsbury's was thinking of selling it.'

SIR ROCCO FORTE, R F HOTELS

Educated by the Benedictines at Downside College, Rocco Forte is well known as a benefactor and prefers to give those he is helping some personal attention as well as a financial boost. He is a stalwart supporter of church institutions like the Catholic Herald, of which he is a director, but does not hide his reservations about certain aspects of Catholicism. Nevertheless he feels he has held on to the moral values of the Catholic faith he imbibed from his schooldays.

In his view 'the English Catholic bishops are rather left wing'. They support trade unions. He calls himself, if a little shyly, right wing. 'Unions are superfluous to the dialogue between good employer and employee,' he says. 'It is in the interests of the employer to have a satisfied workforce.'

When he once found himself invited to make a bid to cater for black factory workers in South Africa during the apartheid era, he was so disgusted by the feeding arrangements - treating the workers little better than farm animals by pouring the food into troughs - he turned it down, profit and all. 'That was too much or me. They had no human dignity. That must be my Catholic background.'

'There is no reason not to behave in a moral way in business,' says Forte. 'It doesn't mean you are soft. I have had to sack many people in my life, and they all knew they were treated fairly.' Catholic principles? 'It is because I like being that way.'

He is a wealthy and successful hotelier, having taken the great Trusthouse Forte empire over from his father Lord (Charles) Forte, then lost it in a takeover battle with Granada two years ago. He fought a good fight and shows no bitterness, and though this lack of rancour may be another legacy of the Christianity the monks taught him at Downside, it may also partly be because he lost on his chosen free-market battlefield. Having agreed the rules he cannot logically complain about the outcome. Now he is building a new hotel business, R F Hotels, battling with such ethical dilemmas as whether or nor to allow soft pornography channels on the television sets in his hotel rooms. 'I probably will,' he says. 'Adults can make their own minds up.' Forte is no puritan.

SIDNEY COROB, COROB CONSOLIDATED

Sidney Corob once worked with someone who came up with a scheme for improving company profits. It wasn't ethical and he turned the idea down. The man didn't stay with the company. 'In the long run,' says Corob, 'that was not the way to succeed.'

He believes the key to the impact of faith on business is in the development of a conscience. One's good name is a priceless business asset, he says.

'I can think of some people in business who have been even more successful than they might otherwise have been as a result of personal faith.' But there is much more to it than that. Economic immorality is a religious crime in Judaism, regardless of whether the victim is Jew or Gentile.

If a Jew is seen to act wrongly, says Corob, he not only risks bringing the good name of all Jews into disrepute but he also defames the Almighty.

Corob is a Jewish property developer and chairman of a family business which has its headquarters in London's Mayfair. Prominent in the British Jewish community, he is a leading figure in the Council for Christians and Jews. Corob says Jewish business principles, largely based on the Bible and the Talmud, set an exacting standard.

A Jew is not allowed to hide behind the rule of caveat emptor (buyer beware). The seller of goods may not represent their quantity and quality untruthfully and, if he does, he has to compensate the buyer.

The old rabbis used to say it was forbidden to paint an old utensil in order to sell it as new.

Bribery is a form of theft and strictly forbidden; aggression in business, even harassing a colleague, is akin to violence; and there is a strict obligation to help others in difficulties. 'A Jew may not kick a fellow when he is down,' says Corob.

Relations with employees have to be based on justice. One of the worst dreads of his life is having to make people redundant. Corob recalls: 'I remember my father going to the end of the world in order not to sack somebody.'

Clifford Longley writes for the Daily Telegraph.

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