Creating shared value between business and society

Once a year as summer approaches, the whole B+I team goes on an excursion to celebrate the year's work, and to change gears a little. Traditionally, the day starts off with a visit to a Basque company in order to familiarise ourselves with their business strategy, visit their facilities, etc. and then, afterwards, we round off with a long, leisurely 'team-building' lunch.

This year, as per usual, we chose well, and I'm not only referring to the restaurant! We had the pleasure and good fortune of being able to visit Gureak Industrial Group in the town of Tolosa (Gipuzkua). We were given an overview of the unique and successful business model of the Group, and witnessed first-hand, the careful, well-structured strategy of the Industrial division. Furthermore, we were delighted to be privy to the tremendous social work the Group has undertaken in promoting the integration of people with varying types of disability into the workforce.

I must confess that I felt great satisfaction at being vindicated in my belief that quality must be the cornerstone of any entrepreneurial project. This is especially true where a company needs to compete in demanding international markets, such as in the automotive market. My only regret is not having had more time to converse with the workers on the production line who are the true heroes of the process.

The impressive statistics of this cutting-edge Group in technologies and processes certainly speak for themselves. With a turnover of over €200 million, almost 90% of its industrial sales are destined for markets beyond Gipuzkua, and with the Group's staff numbering around 5,200 (84% of whom have a registered disability), it represents 1.5% of total employment in this Basque province.

I would like to share with readers some thoughts on how Gureak can provide more conventional companies with practical lessons. First of all, in terms of that all too often heard expression 'Shared Value' (the notion that we bring value to society by solving social problems), one would be hard pressed to find a better example than Gureak.

By offering decent employment to people with disabilities, the company treats them with the dignity they deserve, thereby facilitating social inclusion. How many companies, who seek out a connection with society beyond the purely commercial, succeed in this endeavour?

Through foresight and consistent investment, Gureak Industrial has evolved from its modest beginnings as a group of assembly workshops (which in the past meant they were mere subcontractors who undertook the repetitive processes), to pioneers of a commercial strategy which offers tailor-made technological solutions to the differing needs of clients and sectors. Adapting the workstations in the production line to the needs of the disabled employees was a culmination of this process.

Personally, I believe the success of this business venture is a combination of a variety of factors: Firstly, a competitive business model strong enough to withstand the demands of the market. Secondly, a significant investment in technology coupled with ongoing evaluation and adaptation of production processes. Thirdly, a network of collaborators who bring value added to the entrepreneurial strategy. And finally, a commitment to continuous improvement and innovation in all facets of the business.

Yet, the most important lesson we can learn from Gureak, in my humble opinion, is the personalised management of individuals. Through the Gureak Itinerary Programme, the employee with a disability is monitored closely right through their professional trajectory, in a way hitherto unseen in other Basque companies.

Each individual is provided with specialised support and counselling, both professionally and personally, and based on the capabilities and needs of each, an 'itinerary' is set out. Examples include: personalised workstations; monitoring of both personal and professional progress by providing the worker with a network of support including family members, psychologists, doctors, etc., thus creating mechanisms of active participation which was previously reserved for other segments of the population. In short, the individual employee is truly empowered both professionally and personally.

And so, it comes down to people and how they must be at the core of companies. Isn’t that what we have been saying all along, that a company’s most valuable asset is its people? Yet, how many of our businesses have properly and adequately designed their management process around the professional and personal development of staff?

I must say here that I do not share the view espoused by certain social collectives and unions that disabled workers are being exploiting by Gureak and other members of Ehlabe (the Basque Association of non-profit entities which promote the social and labour inclusion of people with disabilities). Rather, I feel that their management model dignifies the lives of people who would otherwise be excluded from entering the workforce. In so doing, an important contribution to social inclusion is made. The group provides employees with ongoing, tailor-made, professional and personal support throughout their career path, a structured working environment, which is conducive to their well-being, all in addition to receiving a competitive salary in recognition of their efforts.

In conclusion, this article would be incomplete without a word of acknowledgement of the professionals involved in, and responsible for creating this business venture. It is a true privilege to have borne witness to the passion and commitment displayed, and to the relentless search for a competitive edge in the tempestuous international market in which they operate. Indeed, we were impressed by the genuine dedication to supporting and developing employees with special needs at Gureak, and overall, by the contribution they have made in making the Basque Region one of solidarity and opportunity for all.

Read the original article in El Economista (Spanish).

Sabin Azua

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