Want to balance profit and purpose? Just ask the ‘hippie in a suit’

By Brianna McShane

It only takes a moment of conversation with Dr. David Cooke to realise he’s a leader you’d love to work with. He’s warm, funny and over the years has gained a reputation as a ‘hippie in a suit’ – a moniker he wears with pride.  

David’s reputation comes from his ability to run extremely profitable companies built on a healthy conscience. During his time as Managing Director at Konica Minolta, he was able to turn the company around commercially and culturally. 

Since stepping down a few years back, David has been inundated with requests to share his business philosophy, leading him to start his ESG advisory. Now, he’s helping others create profitable and caring companies. 

We sat down with David to discover more about his journey and why he’s glad to see the ‘S’ in ESG stepping into the limelight.  

Here’s what he had to say.

 Creating a company that cares 

The opportunity to lead a Japanese multinational technology company was not one David or his colleagues saw coming. 

“When they announced me, everyone fell off their seats with surprise. We all assumed after 40 years it’ll be another Japanese person,” David said.    

“I walked on stage, collected my thoughts, turned to the lectern, and said: “I want us all to work together to build a company that cares, that cares about the people who work here, that cares about our customers and our community.” 

It’s a bold vision and one David admits he had no idea how to achieve in the beginning. His first step was to send an email to staff asking for their ideas about creating a company that cares.   

“A lot of things came back; number one was we needed better communication in the company. It was very hierarchical, very siloed. Number two was more purpose in our jobs and the organisation,” he said.  

David also asked staff to vote on their preferred charity partners and the work they wanted to do in the community, which over the years morphed from supporting not-for-profit partnerships and volunteering to social justice and human rights advocacy.  

The company advocated strongly for new federal legislation governing business supply chains that would compel organisations to look deeply into who their suppliers were and potential human rights abuses. 

“I’m proud of the fact we contributed in no small part to the Australian Modern Slavery Act. But on a more personal level, I’m most proud of building an organisation that cared for people,” David said.  

The company’s staunch commitment to eradicating modern slavery from supply chains earned Konica Minolta the Freedom Award by Anti-slavery Australia in 2017 and the Australian Human Rights Commission Business Award in 2018. 

What are the economic benefits of a caring company?  

During his time at the helm David helped Konica Minolta considerably increase its revenue and market share. He said success wasn’t about choosing between profit and purpose.  

“If you’re not making good profits, it’s hard to support other sectors that are doing good full time. If you have more purpose, then you’ll drive more profit. It’s this beautiful virtuous circle of these two things feeding each other.” 

David said ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) policies were critical to any business hoping to stay around in the medium to long term and would lead to better businesses with greater shareholder returns. 

“If you’re the CEO and you only care about that month’s results, or you only care about that year’s bonus for yourself, you can dump all the waste you like out of your factory in the Parramatta River. You can treat your staff poorly, you can allow sexual harassment and bullying to be rife in your organisation and it probably won’t have a tangible effect in a very short period,” he said.  

But he warned businesses who ignored ESG for any period beyond a few months or a year were headed for disaster.  

“Your returns will slide; people will dump your stock and your share price will go down. If you’re running a toxic enough organisation that has no focus on ESG, you’re probably heading for prosecution and maybe even jail time.”  

Why S is no longer the ‘poor cousin’ to E and G 

While the ‘E’ and the ‘G’ in ESG have been pretty well established for the past decade, David said the S has been a bit like “the poor cousin” considered as optional. 

“Let me tell you now, it’s not optional anymore because people, often younger generations, are sending emails to companies wanting to know what they’re doing to make a positive impact on society. And staff want it as well,” he said.  

After Konica Minolta earned a reputation for doing good, David said people started applying for roles with the company who would never have applied before including from its biggest competitors. He said it also led to greater staff retention at the company. 

“People would stop me in the corridor and say ‘I got tapped on the shoulder by one of the big competitors the other day to work there but don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. I love this place. I love what we’re doing here. We are doing this together.’ That’s the S, and it’s incredibly powerful.” 

Hear David’s business philosophy at the Social Impact Summit    

David will share the secrets to his business philosophy and facilitate the Profit and Purpose stream at the Social Impact Summit on the 3rd of July. 

To buy tickets or for more information including the event program visit https://socialimpactsummit.co/.