Perhaps you’ve heard the story. When I stepped in to run the Campbell Soup Company in 2001, the environment at Campbell was hugely challenging. We’d lost half of our market value in just one year. We were at a strategic crossroads for our shareholders. Employee engagement had plummeted to an all-time low and some our best people were hanging on by a thread. Making matters worse, Camden, New Jersey, home to our World Headquarters, was firmly established as one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the United States. Safety concerns for our employees abounded.
Campbell was failing on virtually all fronts.
With a team of people I set about the task of reinventing the culture at Campbell. These were dark days for the company, yet I could see a world of possibility and potential very clearly. The company had, and still has, extraordinary assets: iconic products, a huge number of skilled employees, many of whom had built careers at Campbell, and a broader community made up of supportive consumers and customers — lots of them. That’s quite a foundation on which to stage a comeback.
Instead of making lethal cuts, we decided that our dream — our vision — was to transform Campbell into a place where employees wanted to be…and wanted to stay. You can’t have an organisation that consistently delivers high performance unless you have a consistently high level of engagement predicated on trust. We needed to restore both — trust and engagement. If we could do that, then we were sure the profits would follow. There were a lot of things we changed, from the leadership team to package design — you’ve read about those. But what took the momentum at Campbell to an even higher level in terms of employee engagement happened more recently.
One of the primary things that makes Campbell a place where people want to come to work is the company’s earnest and ongoing commitment to our communities around the globe. We forged an ambitious plan to make Camden, our hometown for more than 140 years, a better place. That is what is helping employees feel more fulfilled despite even this latest economic crisis.
The Flywheel Effect
Camden’s steep decline over the past several decades has made it a poster child for urban blight. The violent crime rate is 5 times the national average. More than half of the city lives below the poverty line. The high school dropout rate exceeds 40 per cent. A high percentage of the city’s real estate has been abandoned. Citizens have very limited access to nutritious food and child hunger and obesity rates are staggering. Over the years most of the companies that supported Camden’s tax base have moved out, they’ve abandoned ship. But we have approached the challenge differently. We have chosen to get deeply involved in improving the well-being of the children in Camden.
As a food company, working hand-in-hand with a cadre of strategic local and national partners, we centered our efforts on health and nutrition. The project, still in its infancy, is focused on cutting the BMI (Body Mass Index) of Camden’s 23,000 children in half over the next decade. It includes bringing nutritionists into schools and having Campbell’s chefs help parents think about ways to serve healthy food at home. And that is just the beginning: Today, Campbell is working to attract food retailers to Camden’s food desert — the city has only one supermarket — and helping to build neighbourhood gardens to get children closer to the food supply. Campbell is also sponsoring activities for youth to increase physical fitness in schools and to help them remain active and occupied when school is not in session. And the company is developing the areas all around its world headquarters — levelling run-down buildings to attract commerce.
It is an ambitious agenda but it is right in Campbell’s sweet spot. And why not? It has advanced our corporate agenda. Focusing these efforts on food and nutrition has allowed us to smartly leverage our resources. Another part of the corporate social responsibility plan — committing to cut Campbell’s carbon footprint by half — has saved money and lowered costs. Campbell is earnestly and sincerely helping to build a better world within the scope of what the company does well. But even more than that, employees are proud to be associated with a company that is doing this kind of work, and consumers in the community and beyond have supported our efforts and our business.
The flywheel effect is astounding and ongoing: Winning in the community leads to winning in the workplace and winning in the marketplace. The more the Company takes care of the world, the more the world responds. The more the company leans into building a better society in a strategically focused way, the better the company performs.
Gallup, the polling and research firm, studied the engagement levels of Campbell’s managers back in 2002 and found that for every 2 people actively engaged in the business, 1 was actively disengaged. Anecdotally, those numbers were the worst for any Fortune 500 firm at the time. As of 2011, the story is far different: 17 Campbell employees are actively engaged for every 1 employee who is actively disengaged. Gallup considers twelve to one to be world-class.
There is a lot of heavy lifting yet to be done but Campbell is in a position to continue to support the community and at the same time improve as a company. The more work employees do to help advance the interests of the community, the prouder they become. They perceive Campbell’s sponsorship and support of the community as a feather in their cap. The good feeling among employees is palpable — and contagious. To me, this speaks to the power of an aspirational idea approached realistically.
I look at Camden and I think of so many other communities in America that are in distress. I also see countless companies that would like to elevate employee engagement and trust. The opportunity to improve both is literally right in their backyard. Look at Campbell: Hundreds of employees are earnestly involved in making their community a better place. And why not? The flywheel effect benefits everyone.
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