What companies do you most admire?

Think Tank

4 min read

Mark Goyder is a senior advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank. He’s the founder of Tomorrow’s Company and co-author with Ong Boon Hwee of Entrusted: Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation, published by World Scientific in 2020.


‘Which company do you most admire?’

I like to ask this question if I am at a dinner party and the conversation gets boring.

Some people immediately choose big companies which are household names. Larger companies I have heard mentioned recently include Patagonia, Proctor and Gamble and SAP Technology.

Others talk about smaller companies - both caring and dynamic - that are local or known to them personally.  

I recently asked members of ‘A Different Story’ - a highly informed group of sustainability champions - for their nominations. There were a lot of food and some drinks companies – Abel and Cole, Ella’s Kitchen. Mindful Chef, Riverford, Toast Ale – because these companies have provided a valued product or service in a sustainable or even regenerative way.  

There were companies in clothing and fashion. Elvis and Kresse – which featured at the Anthropy conference – make high fashion handbags out of recycled fire hose and their founders have now embarked on regenerative viticulture. Also Vivo Barefoot, a regenerative business starting in footwear and moving towards lifestyle.

There were some nominations that reflected an intense effort by organisations working together in a particular community. In Grimsby, I learned, there is a remarkable recently formed organisation called East Marsh United mobilising the community alongside Docks Beer and Grimsby Town Football Club.

Other group members made me aware of ambitious companies at the very extremity of technological daring. I hadn’t heard of Mori Food Technology, which uses naturally derived silk protein to preserve food and has the potential to eliminate plastic from supermarkets. Or Bolt Threads which harnesses proteins found in nature to create fibres and bolt threads.

Because the small companies are known to smaller audiences, they never figure on the published lists.

Google ‘most admired companies’ and you will find the usual big US companies.

Fortune claims with a straight face that the world’s top five ‘most admired companies’ are:

1) Apple 2) Amazon 3) Microsoft 4) Pfizer 5) Walt Disney.

A quick look at their methodology tells us why. They begin with

‘a universe of the largest 1000 US companies ranked by revenue, along with non-US companies in Fortune 500’s Global 500 Database that have revenues of $10billion or more.'

They then ‘winnowed the assortment to highest revenue companies in each industry’ and asked the executives who worked in those companies to choose the most admired companies in their industry.

What a self-referential way of judging companies! Where are the many outstanding Asian businesses like Ayala in the Philippines, or Tata or Dr Reddy’s in India? Let alone the younger, regenerative disruptors of East and West. Or the really enduring family businesses which, because they are not listed, are rarely in the news?

I revisited this question last week because, at the start of the first ever module developed by Tomorrow’s Company in partnership with committed local business leaders, I was about to be in front of a class of fifteen year-olds.

Originally I was going to ask students to name the company – any company – that they most admired. After talking to an experienced teacher, I changed my mind. We decided to offer the class a list of five companies that we thought were familiar to a UK audience and invited them to rank the five from best to worst. We didn’t tell them what criteria to use.

The companies we asked them to rank were:

Bet 365, Marks & Spencer, Meta (still better known as Facebook), Microsoft, Patagonia

The company that repeatedly ranked highest in the class’s estimation was, to our surprise, Microsoft.

When asked why, the students offered two reasons. First because Microsoft is huge. It’s everywhere. Second, because it produces something that many people and organisations found useful or enjoyable to help them function efficiently.

When asked which was their worst of the 5, they chose Marks & Spencer. Not because they knew anything bad about it, but they didn’t know anything good either. It was just a dull name in the High Street.

Bet 365 had some ‘worst company’ votes because the students thought that Bet 365 got people to gamble away money they couldn’t afford and get into debt.

Meta/Facebook was dismissed as a ‘yesterday’s company’ that no-one of their age group uses any more: although it wasn’t ranked as low as Marks & Spencer, the reasoning seemed similar.

Patagonia sat in the middle. The 15 year-olds hadn’t heard of it.  

So, in a curious way, the unsuspecting 15 year olds ended up making rather similar judgements to that gilded elite of executives who were consulted by Fortune. Both picked companies like Microsoft because they are big and their tentacles reach everywhere.

Or perhaps the truth is the other way round. The elite executives are displaying the same level of awareness as 15 year-olds in the assumptions they are making about what is admirable in a company. (It’s not that long ago when GE was capturing their admiration and look at where it is today.)

We have now set the 15 year-olds the task of seeking out admirable businesses in their locality. In the meantime I have learned that there is a rich array of smaller regenerative companies who are doing things differently, some of whom will become the established enterprises of tomorrow.

This prompts me to do more research – which, thanks to the help of those sustainability champions I now know I can conduct on an eco-friendly search engine called Ecosia!

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