BITC boss Amanda Mackenzie: Business CAN be a force for good

Proud: Amanda Mackenzie, chief of BITC

Amanda Mackenzie wants to convince the world that business can be a force for good, which is never an easy task. In the past decade or so, the British economy has been brought to the brink of ruin by reckless banks. 

Big oil companies have been accused of polluting the planet. Water providers have spent millions of hours discharging sewage into rivers and the sea, and paid millions to top bosses as the nation suffered a sweltering drought. Consumer goods companies have been under fire for making multi-billion pound profits as customers struggle with rampant inflation. 

And for chief executives, accusations of fat-cattery are an occupational hazard.

The charge sheet is long. But in her nearly six years as chief executive of Business in the Community (BITC), Mackenzie, 58, has been telling another side of the story. 

And despite some of the headlines, she is adamant there is another side, and that responsible businesses can improve people’s lives and help less privileged communities. 

‘We were involved in levelling-up before the phrase was invented,’ she says. ‘There is an inextricable link between healthy business and a healthy community.’ 

BITC, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, has the Prince of Wales as its patron. It boasts of being the largest and longest-established member organisation for responsible business. When set up in 1982, the country was still traumatised by the riots a year earlier in Brixton in South London and Toxteth in Liverpool. 

The nation was deeply divided, much of it scarred by industrial decline, unemployment and poverty. The focus in those early years was to get businesses involved in regenerating local communities, and providing practical help for people to set up their own firms. 

BITC was an early champion of ideas such as ESG – environment, social and governance – along with diversity and inclusion. These are now mainstream, but 40 years ago such concepts were seen as marginal, verging on the cranky.

For Mackenzie, it is all part of a proud tradition of enlightened capitalism, dating back to companies with Quaker roots such as Unilever. ‘That heritage is playing into business today. It is the essence of what good companies do,’ she says. 

Reflecting on her stint at BITC as she prepares to step down this year, she says: ‘We needed to be louder and prouder.’ 

An inevitable hazard is that cynics dismiss responsible business as virtue-signalling. With Yorkshirewoman Mackenzie at the helm, it is a lot grittier than that. 

The Seeing is Believing programme, started by the Prince of Wales in 1990, wrests business leaders out of their boardroom bubble. 

The idea is for executives, who risk being cosseted at the top, to see for themselves the difficulties faced in some of the UK’s less prosperous places. On a visit this summer to Bradford and its surrounding area, delegates were wiping tears from their eyes on a visit to the Keighley Asian Women and Children’s Centre. 

Women took it in turns to stand up and tell their stories, sometimes haltingly. Several had suffered domestic abuse and poverty. Some were unable to speak English. All had found a haven at the centre and, armed with new confidence, are now working on a business idea to sell lunchtime curries to workers at local companies. 

‘On the Seeing is Believing visits, grown men crying is my measure of success,’ says Mackenzie. ‘It gets people out of their comfort zone into a place where they can apply business thinking to social problems.’ 

The membership of BITC includes big names, such as BP, Barclays, NatWest, Credit Suisse, the Post Office and PwC, all of which have been criticised over various scandals in recent years. 

One could take a cynical view of this, but for Mackenzie, business needs a purpose, and it ‘has to be something beyond profit’. She says: ‘If a company has purpose that acts as a north star, then that will guide it through difficult times.’ 

Mackenzie and her team swung into action in the pandemic with the National Business Response Network (NBRN). During Covid, the NBRN used BITC’s local contacts to make sure firms’ support went to where it was most needed, whether it be food, social care or technology. When schools closed and children needed computers to learn from home, Mackenzie says, ‘we immediately reached out to our network, but due to a national shortage of new devices we had to be creative’. 

BITC teamed up with Computers4Charities to receive second-hand devices, wipe them, and redistribute them. Firms piled in to help, including Virgin Media, which donated £300,000 and 1,500 laptops and 4G bundles. 

Other donations included food from train company LNER and Manchester Airport that would have gone to waste, and digital training for staff at technology firm Verizon to help women suffering domestic violence. 

‘In about five weeks, the NBRN put together unique supply chains. We knew where the needs were, so we could stitch the supply chains together,’ Mackenzie says. 

‘It was about our convening power. We were in a unique position, because we had insight into community need and contact with businesses. We are using it at the moment to help refugees into work.’ She also mentions Ban the Box, a scheme where firms get rid of the requirement for job candidates to disclose old criminal records. 

‘Firms have taken away that tick-box for a million jobs. Some great employers, like Timpson, employ ex-offenders. They have done their time. Why should they be judged by the worst thing they have ever done? It feels wrong.’ 

Mackenzie’s definition of a responsible business is one whose long-term strategy centres on creating healthy communities and a healthy environment. ‘You have to be fair and sustainable, those are the two watchwords when making decisions. You have to balance that with making a profit, which is not easy, but that is what business leaders are paid for.’ 

The political turmoil of recent years ‘puts the obligation back on business’, she argues. ‘Companies are not there for a five-year term, they are there for the long term.’ 

In good company: Amanda Mackenzie with BITC patron the Prince of Wales

In good company: Amanda Mackenzie with BITC patron the Prince of Wales

No one could accuse Mackenzie of being a naive do-gooder. She is a seasoned executive, having been chief marketing and communications officer at insurance giant Aviva, where she was seconded to help launch the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. 

She has also held senior jobs at British Airways, BT, Hewlett-Packard and British Gas, and was a prominent figure in the investigation by Lord (Mervyn) Davies aiming to increase the number of women on FTSE boards. 

She is also an independent director at Lloyds Banking Group. 

Under her leadership, BITC is not just another talking shop, but gets things done. ‘I describe us as a ‘think and do tank’.’

So as a hard-headed businesswoman, does she see limits on social responsibility? ‘Yes, if the long-term financial sustainability of that business is being hampered by prioritising one stakeholder group to the detriment of another, then I guess that is the limit.’ 

Mackenzie says she struggles with executives who take very large pay packages, and whether that can be considered compatible with responsible business practice. ‘The agenda we pursue is not about pay. It is a complex area. But do I feel great when I hear about excessive pay? No, of course I don’t.’ 

BITC, she says, would turn down socially irresponsible companies trying to join, and throw out ones that fell badly short, ‘though we haven’t made a big song and dance about it’. 

Good intentions only go so far, but Amanda Mackenzie has brought acumen and energy to her role at BITC. Membership has grown 30 per cent in the past two years following an earlier decline, and income has stabilised. The ‘net promoter score’ – a measure of how well an organisation is regarded by its customers – has gone from minus 7 in 2017 to plus 41 in 2022. 

Responsible businesses, she argues, often perform better. 

‘When business leaders engage in society, that brings their brainpower on to the front line in communities. It is a priceless alchemical moment.’