So what does a genuinely 'inclusive' company look like? The Unipart group of companies is a good place to find out. Formerly the automotive parts division of British Leyland, Unipart, under the inspirational John Neill, set up a partnership with its dealers - the only area where it was then free to act - in 1974. 'It was driven by the realisation that it was in our mutual interest,' recalls Neill, and, despite initial suspicion, it worked. 'We thought, why can't we spread the approach in other ways, to our employees, and our suppliers, and our shareholders?' says Neill. And with the buy-out from BL in 1987, the 'shared destiny relationship' concept really took shape.
Some of its effects are plain to see, from the moment you enter the Unipart building - in the well-equipped computer learning centre and library (complete with laptops, which can be taken home, for practice), which is part of the company's very own 'university', the Unipart 'U'; in the £1 million 'Lean Machine' fitness centre, where employees can be seen exercising during work hours; in the bright football practice room, where young hopefuls from Oxford United (one of the company's very many 'community stakeholders') are being coached.
Other effects are less tangible - an atmosphere of 'can do', a sense of confidence and articulacy among the employees, a feeling of professionalism and attention to detail. And some aspects need further explanation. So, for example, suppliers now collaborate with Unipart's UK and Japanese customers in 'stakeholder circles', to solve quality problems (using the 'creative pathfinding' techniques taught, among 180 other courses, in the Unipart 'U'). They also take part in the 'Ten(d)-to-Zero' continuous improvement programme, aimed at reducing lead time, delivery errors, transaction costs and so on, with zero waste as the ultimate goal. Employees start their own quality circles ('Our Contribution Counts' circles), such as the 'Adopt-a-Dealer' service set up by depot operator Eddie Waddell. Unipart continues to learn from its hard-won supplier-relationship with Honda and Toyota. Over 60% of the company is owned by the employees, whose shares have risen from an initial 5p to £13.50. Institutional investors, normally keen to lock in capital gain, have aligned themselves with the company's long-term aims.
The list of 'partnerships' is apparently endless; and the effect, says Neill, is cumulative. The 'inclusive' model is not, he insists, based on altruism or a 'soggy collectivism'. 'It is very demanding: these are not soft relationships,' he says, 'but it is based on trust - something which is very difficult for Westerners to grasp.'
He concedes that being a private company does make it easier, but believes that public companies could do the same, provided the will and the leadership were there. 'If you have a sense of purpose, a real mission, and people sign up to it, it's extraordinary what they can achieve.'.