Byline: Vicki Jayne
It's perhaps a sad comment on the status of business in the social psyche that "noble" is not the most obvious adjective you might apply to it. Dick Brunton would like to change that.
The co-founder and leader of market research company Colmar Brunton believes business 'can' be a noble calling -- though admits it often isn't.
"Most businesses are too inward focused -- they are focused on making money by driving profit, by driving costs out. I'm not saying they don't have to do these things but I think business should be great. At the end of the day what is business but a bunch of people serving other people."
It is, he avers, one of the biggest issues that faces New Zealand business -- that too many companies are slaves to bottom line thinking or to offshore masters.
"They are quite soul-less and you can tell that pretty much when you walk in."
It's perhaps no surprise that Brunton can summon up relevant market research to illustrate his views. His three-decade-old company is a leader when it comes to collecting and evaluating consumer opinion. Turns out that when asked to rate business on a scale of its positive/negative qualities a couple of years back, some 40 percent of survey respondents perceived it as a necessary evil -- or words to that effect.
"About one quarter of teachers thought that," notes Brunton.
He can understand why. There is an apparent ruthlessness about business -- and there have certainly been times when he's had to make people redundant (four years ago the closure of Colmar Brunton's North Shore call centre saw the loss of 50 jobs).
"I'm not saying those hard decisions don't have to be made but there's a way of doing it. And the bottom line is that business should be about making a difference in the world."
The company's brand slogan "Better Business, Better World" is "not just a pretty thing", he says. "We mean it. We'd like our business to be a bit of a lighthouse modelling the way. I think that love and profit can be partners -- I don't think they are adversaries."
Brunton owns that his attitude to business changed fairly radically when he became a born-again Christian back in the 1980s. "I didn't start doing things differently because I became a Christian: I just became different -- a more caring and loving person."
He's since read a lot about leadership (see box story "Recipes for leadership") and these days likes to quote the John Seely Brown maxim that "the job of leadership today is not just to make money, it's to make meaning".
It's a philosophy his own company seems to thrive on. Colmar Brunton is both values based and successful. From a starter kit of two (himself and former business partner Pauline Colmar) in 1981, the company now has 108 fulltime employees in New Zealand and a brand with widespread recognition.
That despite the fact his was a career that started pretty much "by accident" when he applied for a job as account director with ACNielsen knowing almost nothing about market research. Brunton quickly discovered it was a natural fit.
"I always had a penchant for maths and found I loved extracting meaning from numbers."
He was poached by Unilever to run its market research company and did that for three years before the urge to do his own thing won out. When Unilever didn't come to the party with a stake in its business, he "stuck my neck out a bit and explored going independent".
Pauline Colmar expressed an interest and their skills -- hers in qualitative research and attention to detail, his with clients and big picture thinking -- proved a great combo. They set up in a little house on the corner of Lake and Esmonde Roads -- since lost to motorway extension. It was fairly "boutiquey", smiles Brunton with its puddle-prone, gravel access -- but it hit the right market nerve and grew.
John Shanahan came on board as a partner and the firm expanded into Australia, becoming pioneers of consumer sensory evaluation in the Australasian region. …