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The Romance of Commerce

I have been watching a series on the life of Gordon Selfridge which has just come to an end. While it focused on his private life, snippets of his business philosophy appear in the programme and I was intrigued enough about his view of business to track down his book ‘The Romance of Commerce’ published in 1918. In it he describes the history of commerce from ancient civilisations through to the beginning of the twentieth century. I was struck by a number of observations made. He talks about his concern that due to the behaviour of some of those engaged in commerce, commerce itself had become discredited – that “the word ‘trade’ has become the synonym for disrespect , almost for contempt” and his sadness that the young men of his age were looking to other professions. He goes on to say that “It is within the power of Society to insist upon dignity in Commerce, and withhold her approval from the pettiness which is found on the fringe of trading: but she surely errs if she casts a disdainful eye on the whole industry, and allows such snobbishness to become in any way fashionable.” Sadly these statements still ring true today. Business is still not trusted and his articulation of what has now become known as ‘licence to operate’ is even more relevant today. Selfridge espoused a new business philosophy much of which echoes some of the principles of Tomorrow’s Company He states that it is “…not good to get the better of another by hook or crook…that there is so much more to the employee than two arms and legs but the spirit of enthusiasm and earnestness and ‘I will’ attitude...that loyalty is a quality to be earned by the employer.”  He believed that “…real success must be determined by that great jury which finally decides all big questions – the jury of public opinion”… And that “...success in its broadest meaning is the favourable attainment of that object or series of objects which make for a higher standard of civilization, which gives to the world higher ideals in those things which concern the everyday life of the multitude.” He understood the need to meet changing societal expectations, build effective relationships, and recognised that a company is a part of society not apart from society and the importance of having a purpose beyond just financials. Selfridge was in love with commerce, hence the title of his book, and we need to look to the business leaders of today who still see business as a vibrant, exciting field of endeavour which can be a force for good.

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