Oliver Balch sits down with the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Alliance Boots to discuss winning an Ethical Award, the initiatives they undertook to achieve it, and the effect that winning has had on the company
Richard Ellis joined Boots in 2003 and became responsible for all the company’s corporate social responsibility activities. Following the merger between Boots and Alliance UniChem and the subsequent private equity buy out, he was appointed into his current role as director of corporate social responsibility at Alliance Boots Group.Over the past 30 years, Richard has also held management roles in corporate responsibility at HSBC, TSB and British Aerospace. For five years, he also ran his own consultancy firm advising on corporate responsibility issues.
Ethical Corporation: Alliance Boots won last year’s Award for ‘Most Effective International Community Investment’. What was the project in question?
Richard Ellis: The Award was for our partnership with the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) Charitable Trust. EORTC is the largest clinical research organisation for cancer in Europe, working with over 300 hospitals and specialist centres. At Alliance Boots, we established a five-year partnership with EORTC in 2011 and committed to raise €5m for the organisation.
Ethical Corporation: What is the main focus of the partnership?
Richard Ellis: The partnership has established a single European database for patient data on bowel cancer. This bio-bank collates the DNA of individual patients, the DNA of their tumour, their treatment and the outcome of that treatment. We also request a micron slice of their tumour. All of this is stored together in the same location and is available to oncology researchers across Europe. Alliance Boots provided the funding to establish the bio-bank, which is based in Dresden.
Ethical Corporation: Why is a bio-bank of this kind important and what makes it different?
Richard Ellis: Well, for starters, there is no central database like this for any type of cancer in Europe. This is partly because the world of cancer research is not very collaborative because individual oncology units are all competing for the same tranches of funding. Also, IT and medicine don’t go together particularly well. Standard IT solutions often don’t meet the needs of medical professionals. Finally, there are issues around freedom of information, which have historically prevented research organisations in Europe sharing patient data. By overcoming these barriers and establishing a bio-bank of this kind, researchers will be able to access a far greater spread of data than was previously possible.
Ethical Corporation: If the medical research community doesn’t have a history of working together, how did you pull off this highly collaborative initiative?
Richard Ellis: I think it helps that we have a close knowledge of the medical community, but we’re independent of it at the same time. We are not a hospital or a drug company, for example. Yet, because we have a broad understanding across the spectrum and have good networks in the sector, we can help in a convening role. We know many of the right people across Europe to make this sort of project happen, for example. We have relationships with representatives on various medical committees in Brussels, for example, so we could go and speak to them and ask their opinion.
From our point of view, the purpose was to show the medical fraternity that more can be achieved if we collaborate than if we work individually. And that message is slowly getting through. A similar bio-bank has now been set up for breast cancer, for example.
Ethical Corporation: Why does Alliance Boots place such a strong emphasis on a collaborative approach to its social investments?
Richard Ellis: If you look at most of the leading large companies, we are all basically doing the right thing. But in a sense we’re only becoming less bad rather than fundamentally changing things. As a company, we believe the only way we will effect real change is through collaboration. In the case of EORTC, for instance, we needed to work with 29 different governments across Europe and dozens of oncology units to get this off the ground. It simply wouldn’t have been possible for any one organisation to make a bio-bank like this happen.
Ethical Corporation: How are you involving your employees in the partnership?
Richard Ellis: We have set ourselves the target of raising €5m by 2016 and our employees are playing a key part in achieving this. Some of our employees are running a sweepstake at the moment on who is going to win the World Cup, for example. We also have an employee who is planning to cycle in the window of the Boots store on Oxford Street for 24 hours straight during the Tour de France. We match all our employees’ fundraising efforts £1 to £1, up to a limit of £2,500.
Ethical Corporation: What impact did winning last year’s Annual Responsible Business Award make?
Richard Ellis: Most of the benefits are internal. To be able to communicate the fact that we won the award across the company gives people a real ‘feel good factor’. That then gives our fundraising efforts renewed momentum. From my perspective as director of corporate social responsibility, the external recognition of an award helps when communicating these issues to my board. Of course, the doctors, researchers and other partners on the project feel very positive when they get news of an award like this as well.
At Alliance Boots, we generally don’t shout about our involvement in community projects. I think that makes it all the more powerful when – through an award like this, for instance – employees or customers find out what we are doing. It makes them think differently about the company, for sure.
To find out more information about Ethical Corporation's Responsible Business Awards, visit hereAlliance Boots Ethical Awards Richard Ellis
September 2014, London
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