BOOKS: Talking to the neighbours - By engaging with the community, BAA fulfilled its ambition without the sapping court battles ... a compelling case study, says Julia Cleverdon

BOOKS: Talking to the neighbours - By engaging with the community, BAA fulfilled its ambition without the sapping court battles ... a compelling case study, says Julia Cleverdon - Private Business, Public Battleground; By John Egan and Des Wilson; Palgrav

by JULIA CLEVERDON, chief executive of Business in the Community
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Private Business, Public Battleground; By John Egan and Des Wilson; Palgrave pounds 17.99

Before they came together to work at BAA, the authors of this book seemed a world apart. John Egan had taken his passionate commitment to customer focus to Jaguar, where he turned around an ailing company with defective products, restoring it successfully to the quality market. Des Wilson was a professional campaigner, most notably leading the Campaign for Lead Free Air that headed the drive for lead-free petrol.

When they met, Egan had moved to BAA, which was trying to find ways to expand its operations in the face of opposition. A conversation with Des Wilson convinced Egan that BAA could only obtain its 'licence to operate' if it became more focused on some of its other stakeholders. Wilson then became the corporate affairs director for BAA, and the resulting experiences form the main substance of the book.

BAA has long been one of the most compelling case studies of the business argument for corporate social responsibility (CSR). Private Business, Public Battleground provides a fascinating narrative of how BAA moved from being a company that suffered the longest public inquiry in history towards being one that 'grows with the support and trust of its neighbours'.

At the heart of this approach has been its willingness to speak not only to the local communities and campaign groups who fear its airport expansions, but to seriously and consistently respond to the issues this raises.

During the public inquiry for Heathrow's Terminal 5, this led to BAA's rejection of the proposed widening of the M25 to 14 lanes, and its suggestion that a recommendation be made ruling out the development of a third runway.

It also led to practical measures on issues such as aircraft noise and night flights.

The approach meant that the company enjoyed steadily increasing levels of public support in the local community for Terminal 5, alongside a steadily decreasing opposition. However, the real gains came when BAA was able to start afresh with its Gatwick expansions. Rather than producing plans that would be launched as the opening salvo of hostilities, it embarked on a detailed consultation with local authorities, parishes, community and campaign groups, to establish how it could expand its operations at Gatwick with the support of its neighbours.

BAA could move ahead at Gatwick without a public inquiry - by the time it launched its plans, they represented a negotiated settlement rather than just the company's aspirations.

In the second part of the book, Wilson and Egan talk more generally about corporate citizenship, and seek to establish the general business case rules that lead to the creation of a 'stakeholder company'. BAA was successful because it avoided cosmetic solutions, addressing the real concerns by putting itself on the side of the community rather than in opposition to it. The company had adopted a reasonable approach to pressure groups.

But the authors also confront some of the criticisms made of the citizenship approach. These range from the deeply held suspicion in some quarters that CSR is driven by an innate hostility to the profit motive, through to the fear that businessmen are entering the political arena where they have no mandate to act.

This is not a perfect book. The authors are seduced (which they acknowledge) into giving a dense recitation of the substance that lay behind BAA's 'Contract with the Community', and this makes for difficult reading. The general lessons drawn about corporate citizenship are also rather unsatisfying.

Yet it offers one of the most detailed and readable case studies of corporate best practice available.

The history of CSR is littered with examples of the companies that got it wrong - Nike, Monsanto, Shell and the Brent Spar, to name a few. This book shows that BAA deserves to be cited as an example of how a company can get things right, and the difference it can make.

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