Exec-For-Loan

Food-and-beverage giant Diageo matches senior staff with community groups in need.

Two years ago, Philip Almond had only the vaguest knowledge of London Bubble Theatre Co. Now, the UK brand manager for Smirnoff vodka sits on the company's board, and how he got there is the biggest success story of Diageo PLC's community-assignments program, an outreach effort matching senior executives with the management of not-for-profit agencies. Launched in 1997 before Grand Metropolitan and Guinness merged to form the $22 billion food-and-drink company, the program's pilot continued even during the process of combining the two companies. In fact, all eight of the executives who took part in the project completed their year-long assignments despite the uncertainties associated with the merger, "which is incredible, really," says Claire Hitchcock, Diageo's head of community involvement. For London Bubble, the program was born just as the 27-year-old company -- which performs such plays as A Midsummer Night's Dream throughout London's parks during the summer -- was trying to fine-tune its merchandising efforts. Bubble's marketing director Antony Pickthall recalls that Almond came right from his job marketing liqueurs and creams for Grand Met and immediately injected discipline into the meetings he attended. "That enabled us to focus just on London Bubble's efforts to sell T-shirts," Pickthall says. Applying his marketing and business skills, Almond spent a day and a half each month with the theater company staff. He persuaded the group to refocus its energies on a smaller line of ancillary products. Concentrating on few products helped them make money. "He was very helpful in not making us beat ourselves up about what we could and couldn't do," Pickthall says. Almond's help "enabled us to not only make sure we break even, but also enabled us to turn a little profit, even though a modest one." The effort was profitable for Almond as well, says the executive with Diageo subsidiary United Distillers & Vintners. "I think it was good to get out there," he says. "It gave me a fresh perspective. I found it useful, as well, with what I brought back to the workplace." Another senior staff member, a controller, worked with an inner-city community center to refurbish a valuable piece of real estate. "He said [the program experience] was a huge asset," Hitchcock explains, while acknowledging that some people might have gained more from the experience than others. Such programs are more old-style community outreach than forward-looking corporate citizenship, says one European expert on the subject. Christopher Marsden, former director of the BP Corporate Citizenship Unit at the University of Warwick's Business School and now a visiting fellow there, argues in favor of other efforts for corporations to become better citizens, including assessing the total impact of a company on a given community. Still, he sees overall efforts at building corporate citizenship as being on the rise. "All evidence points to that," says Marsden, adding that the real proof of the pudding is to be found in a company's annual report. If there's a mention of corporate-citizenship efforts, he says, you can bet the company takes such labors seriously. Further evidence of an increase in awareness of corporate citizenship in Europe, Marsden adds, can be found in any of the major management consulting firms, which are all developing tools to measure the impact of corporate-citizenship programs. In the case of Diageo, the community-assignments program is just one of a number of efforts the food-and-drink producer -- whose brands range from Burger King to Jose Cuervo tequila -- has in the works. The company also has created a foundation to fund a variety of programs aimed at getting employees involved in their communities and has made major efforts to educate people about responsible drinking. For the world's largest supplier of spirits, that would seem a purely defensive mechanism, but Marsden says he has no problem with doing good for reasons that could help the bottom line. "That's good business."

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