Anthony Hilton: PwC plays it right with a low-key social conscience


To lunch on Thursday with Ian Powell, head of PricewaterhouseCoopers, at Brigade, a smart modern restaurant in a former fire station just by the firm's office in London's Tooley Street.

When the accountants moved in next door, the building was derelict, but what happened next is different from the usual City story. Powell set up a charity, the Price Waterhouse Foundation, and with money raised from the firm's employees and partners, bought the lease, repaired the building, engaged partners, including the De Vere group, the charity Beyond Food and the people behind the Big Issue, and set out to make it the focus of the firm's work in the community.

The restaurant operates in the way Jamie Oliver made famous but needs the subsidy from the charity. Beyond Food recruits potential chefs from London's homeless, pays them while they train in the restaurant and get qualifications, and after six months helps them find placements. Then it does it all over again.

The second floor is a social enterprise hub and school for social entrepreneurs, which supports local people with creative ideas for social enterprises, while PwC volunteers provide mentoring and advice. The purpose of the school is to give potential entrepreneurs the self-belief to go out and do it. Not only does it mentor upwards of 200 enterprises across London but it has extended the "learning by doing" idea to other UK cities and franchised it abroad. Chief executive Alastair Wilson says Britain is a world leader in this kind of work.

Writing about it feels a bit of an intrusion because Powell's intention was that the hub would be the private embodiment of the firm's values and culture. It was never intended to be something to shout about. Powell believes, surely correctly, that any chief executive or organisation which feels the need to tell people how public spirited it is, is probably not very public spirited.

There's been a huge amount written in recent days about the culture of City firms and the toxic "tone from the top" which is apparent in some. That of course has played a large part in their undoing. But the other side of this is positive. Powell believes that culture is the only real source of long-term competitive advantage a firm can hope for because everything else a business does can be copied or improved upon by competitors.

Only the culture is unique. And it has to be unique in the right way for a business to make it through to the next generation.