19 June 2021

Investing in each other: Julian Richer on family and philanthropy

 

Rajit with his parents, India

Philanthropy is normally assumed to be an individual thing; one person using their wealth to benefit others. Yet there is a growing appreciation for family philanthropy, by which intergenerational wealth can benefit even more people for longer.

Here, Julian Richer, founder of Richer Sounds, describes how his reputation as a socially-minded entrepreneur can be traced back to the social bonds of family.

 

Julian Richer © Gerardo Jaconelli

Like many entrepreneurs, I was a poor performer at school—though I managed to avoid actually getting expelled. I was gifted with no more than the average number of brain cells, and I’m definitely not a workaholic. But one thing I was blessed with was a good upbringing that gave me plenty of confidence, which no doubt made me pretty precocious!

Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily say my parents specifically intended it, they definitely did give me a social conscience. They taught me right and wrong, respect, self-discipline, and the fact you can’t enjoy pudding until you’ve eaten your greens. And it was my grandfather who left money for my education, enabling me to attend a school my parents would never have been able to afford. Looking back, I see how the childhood my relatives gave me directed my career path and—perhaps more importantly—influenced the way I view my employees, and treat my customers, as an extended family.

 

“I see how the childhood my relatives gave me directed my career path and—perhaps more importantly—influenced the way I view my employees, and treat my customers, as an extended family.”

 

Using my time and resources for good is where I have found real satisfaction and joy in my life. And this notion of philanthropy, that we can somehow leave the world a better place than we found it, is becoming increasingly connected not just to individuals, or even couples, but to entire families. Naturally, a family’s philanthropic legacy will always leave a larger social footprint on the community around it than could ever be achieved by one individual.

The world of family philanthropy has been the focus of significant interest in recent years. For example, in a report produced by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, LOCUS Impact Investing estimates the transfer of wealth in the US from one generation to the next will average $9 trillion by 2027. This figure could be as high as $120 trillion by 2067. Tremendous wealth is only part of the picture, though. Every family shares its own set of values and hopes, and by practicing philanthropy together a family not only lives out these interest and dreams in the present, it inspires generations to keep up the good work long into the future.

 

“Naturally, a family’s philanthropic legacy will always leave a larger social footprint on the community around it than could ever be achieved by one individual.”

 

What I inherited from my own parents, more than anything else, was the ability to determine what is important in life, and to treat others with respect. I was born in London in 1959, the elder of two children. My father, the grandson of refugees from eastern Europe, was a frustrated businessman but academically very bright. My mother grew up in Hamburg, but emigrated to Palestine in 1934 before relocating to the UK. They met at a Marks & Spencer store in north London, both working as trainee managers, and the way their employer cared for them left an imprint on me. As a boy I was often regaled with stories of visits from the chairman, Lord Marks, who always made a point of checking the staff were being looked after, the toilets were clean and that they were being served hot meals in the canteen.

My father also helped to nurture something of my commercial acumen, as I didn’t want to be a financial burden on my parents. In 1974, during the miners’ strike when I was 15, I bought cases of candles for £3 and my dad helped me sell them through Exchange & Mart at a considerable profit—much to my eternal shame when thinking about it now. But it taught me some important principles that helped me in my future endeavours, and my father had a part in that; he absolutely played a part and was a key role model for me.

I eagerly started trading when I was 14—essentially as soon as my parents would let me! I soon moved on to selling hi fi separates to other kids in my school, and by the age of 17 I was holding a lot of stock and employing three other lads on commission. My first shop, in a tiny premises next to London Bridge Station, opened two years later. I knew I had little to lose: if things went wrong, I could always move back in with my dad. But things didn’t go wrong—quite the opposite: three or four years later turnover shifted from around £120,000 in the first year to £600,000! Our store even made the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest sales per square foot, and is still in there after 30 years! We began opening new Richer Sounds stores around the country, and I never looked back.

 

“I knew I had little to lose: if things went wrong, I could always move back in with my dad. But things didn’t go wrong”

 

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learnt from 40 years or more in business, as well as from those I admire most in life, is this: what you get out of people depends on how you treat them. And I apply this equally to employees and customers alike. There’s nothing more important—in life, family or even business—than how you deal with other people. I’ve realised that when you go the extra mile, everyone benefits. So every week, for example, I see a colleague care report to help me gauge staff morale at each of our 52 Richer Sounds stores, and very often I’ll call a colleague if I know they’re going through a tough time. Not every person every week, but I’m keeping track. A few years ago, I handed more than 60% of my business to a trust owned by the company’s employees (at Richer Sounds we purposefully call each other ‘colleagues’) and to celebrate this event I gave each of them £1,000 for every year they’d worked for us. They are like family.

I’ve always admired the founder of the John Lewis Partnership, Spedan Lewis, who once declared his sole aim was “to make the world happier and a bit more decent.” Sharing Spedan’s outlook on life, I’m keen to use ethical capitalism for the good of others beyond Richer Sounds, too. Ten years ago, with the support of Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, I set up Acts 435, directly connecting those who are struggling financially with people willing to help. In February last year, I launched the Good Business Charter, an accreditation scheme that requires businesses and charities to make a commitment to ten specific pledges: a real living wage; fairer hours and contracts; employee wellbeing; employee representation; diversity and inclusion; environmental responsibility; paying fair tax; commitment to customers; ethical sourcing; and prompt payment. (I’m delighted to say Hope and Homes for Children are already on board as an accredited member, alongside the likes of TSB, Capita, Aviva and Deloitte.)

 

“There’s nothing more important—in life, family or even business—than how you deal with other people.”

 

My ‘responsible business’ crusade, as I call it, was kindled by my childhood and now spreads out among and beyond my business community. It’s easy to think of philanthropy as something that mainly benefits the recipients. Yet involving others in the act of philanthropy—by sharing responsibilities, spotting the opportunities to do good together, and joint decision-making—also does the world of good for those involved. Within families it helps members to learn more about each other and provides an opportunity for better mutual understanding; it’s a training ground for dealing with challenging relations and managing conflicting viewpoints; and it brings people together through the power of shared values.

I’ve always said a business should be more than the person who leads it. In fact, I’ve planned to leave the remaining 40% of my company in trust on my death for the benefit of my colleagues. That way, Richer Sounds can continue to benefit customers and staff long into the future. I hope my own philanthropy will do likewise, not just being ‘The Richer Way’ now but sowing seeds of help to others long into the future. Through the generosity of my own family, I’ve learnt that remembering to do good is a good way to be remembered.

 

Photo © Gerardo Jaconelli 

 


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Cover of The Richer WayJulian Richer’s books include The Richer Way, exploring how to get the best out of people and described by the Independent as “one of the best business books in history”; and The Ethical Capitalist, a Financial Times book of the month in which Julian proposes a new sense of moral purpose in business.

Both are available from Bookshop.org and all good booksellers.