Conscientious capitalists



Raised by Politically Pink Parents, I was in my youth rather wary and suspicious of capitalism and capitalists. My parents' ideas about the greed and exploitative tendencies of the latter group were reinforced by news reports about the big spenders of the day such as the flamboyant Lady Docker who, when asked why her favourite Daimler (she had five) was upholstered with zebra skin, nonchalantly replied that mink was too hot to sit on.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley after she was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour by the Duke of Cambridge during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 31 October 2017. (Photo by John Stillwell - WPA Pool / Getty Images)Mum and Dad were also children of the Great Depression, and for that reason discussions about money were always likely to be fraught, so I avoided them whenever possible. But because of my adolescent apathy, which went on rather too long, I did little about examining these opinions and fears. But nor did I run around bearing placards that expressed the thought 'Up the Revolution'.

Eventually I realised that the only thing wrong with money is that not everyone has enough of it, and that not all capitalists are like Lady Docker. And at school I learned about Robert Owen, and his concern for his workers: this found expression in his venture at New Lanark, which included superior housing and a school for the workers' children. But way back then I remember regarding him and his work as some kind of benevolent aberration.

Over the years, however, I've learned that the goodie/baddie attitude that puts capitalists in the latter category is simplistic, to say the least. Increasingly, hugely rich parents are leaving their wealth to charities, and not to their children. And New Lanark, started early in the 19th century, was not the only settlement built with employees in mind.

By the end of that century, the Cadbury brothers of chocolate fame had established the Bournville Village near Birmingham, and had pioneered pension schemes and full medical services for their staff. These days the village is still deemed one of the nicest places to live in Britain. Soap manufacturers Lever Brothers also set up a model village on Merseyside at about the same time; it has 900 Grade II listed buildings.

We hear too much about arch-capitalists like the Trump family and the Koch brothers, who receive so much publicity that quieter, more deserving types do not get their due attention. I've recently read about two such.

One is Phillip Ullman, who in 1996 joined his family's Cordant Group, a recruitment business that has 5000 clients, including Amazon and Britain's NHS. Inspired by his idealistic four children, Ullmann had an epiphany fairly recently, and eventually stated that capitalism is not working. He added that business cannot be only about profit, but must be about creating an environment in which people can thrive. So he has set about making the group into Britain's biggest social enterprise: now profits are directed into education, employment and healthcare programs.


"Always grateful that she had the chance to live, Dame Stephanie has given at least 67 million pounds to approximately 100 charities."


An observant Jew in his 50s who goes to synagogue, keeps kosher and prays three times a day, Ullman is also a man of simple tastes. Money doesn't excite him, he says, and he doesn't need a yacht or things in general. He likes having dinner with his wife, walking in the park and watching murder mysteries.

Stephanie Shirley DBE, who came to Britain as a child of five in the Kindertransport, is also uninterested in money for money's sake. From being a child refugee, she became a prominent scientist, entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Always grateful that she had the chance to live, she has given at least 67 million pounds to approximately 100 charities. One of the most important of these is Autistica, which she founded: Dame Stephanie's only child was severely autistic and died when he was 35. In another venture, it took her 15 years to ensure that her software company became co-owned: it was her view that the staff who built the company Freelance Programmers should share in its success.

My parents and grandparents made their efforts for charity in a necessarily small way, and would have been amazed, I think, to see the growth of corporate philanthropy in Australia alone, never mind in the Western world. In 2014, for example, $470 million dollars was given away to good causes within Australia. My oldies might have had to revise their opinions and agree with Dame Stephanie, who maintains that successful businesses can also be morally sound.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley after she was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour by the Duke of Cambridge during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 31 October 2017. (Photo by John Stillwell - WPA Pool / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, capitalism



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Existing comments

If I was very, tremendously wealthy I would buy my car some seats upholstered in (fake) zebra skin: nothing but the best for my girl!! I am not surprised that some (or most?) very wealthy people are unimpressed with money for money's sake. It's a great feeling to give what we can to others and giving money is one way to do that. Hopefully, we all learn fairly early on in life that simply the best way to live is simply.

Pam | 24 September 2019  

Henry Lawson's short story "Arvie Aspinall's Alarm Clock" poignantly portrays another side of philanthropic benevolence on the part of the wealthy. Bless those who do real good with their riches.

John RD | 26 September 2019  

These stories of rich employers and philanthropists who have a moral compass and consider their employees as fellow-humans, deserving of fairness and dignity are worth hearing; they are heart-warming. However, we cannot just rely on the morality and generosity of individuals. There are serious structural obstacles that must be addressed. In recent decades, we have seen the undermining of workers' rights, the weakening of unions, the exploitation of employees; inequity is rife; capitalists making billions on the backs of workers who cannot afford to live in dignity and with security. Political parties siding with the powerful and ignoring the plight of the poor and weak. These are matters that require citizens to act in solidarity to challenge the status quo, with determination to effect change, to achieve fairness, for all.

Myrna | 26 September 2019  

I have just recently read Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation (UQ Murray & [now] LSE Frijters) - about the rorts by politicians, investors, regulators (what regulators?) and infrastructure builders - the funnelling of Australian public money into offshore tax evasion by the 1% of the 1%ers, I think a fair amount of cynicism is healthy Gillian - especial in these 21st century times - and watching Happy-clapper Scott with Trump and Pratt in Wapakoneta and later reading about the celebrity-studded Aussie billionaire gathering in our - I stress "our" embassy in Washington DC - people being hugged by arch-rorter Joe Hockey almost had me weeping. And then I remembered the Widow's Mite - people who give from tiny incomes to worthy causes - here in Australia - and no doubt in other places, too - the pensioners who are generous beyond all imagining - let's figure it out from a percentage basis. Yes, the Quaker industrialists - of 18th, 19th century England as exemplars for what governments ought to be doing - even now. You have given us some excellent examples to inspire us all. hanks, Gillian.

Jim KABLE | 28 September 2019  

It’s inspiring to read of notable philanthropists overseas and their projects, but I’m a little surprised by your comments on Australian corporate philanthropy. My impression is that with a handful of exceptions, Australia has very few corporate philanthropists compared with the USA or UK. Having given at least 10% of my own income for several decades, I am inclined to believe this is the exception rather than the norm.

Juliet Flesch | 28 September 2019  

How well presented this piece into the differences in character and ethos among billionaires. It is refreshing to know that “grateful billionaires” do exist. Bravo Gillian

Stathis Tav | 27 October 2019  

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