411 Grimsby Web

The Mariners are seeking to become football's first B Corp accredited club, putting ethical principles first at Blundell Park

July 26 ~ After two decades of calamity on and off the pitch, Grimsby Town fans are unsurprised this summer to see their team relegated from the Football League for a second time since 2010. But they are also celebrating the fall of the regime they hold responsible for their woes and welcoming new owners whose wholesale shake-up places principles at the top of the agenda.

When the ITV Digital collapse of the early 2000s undermined the club’s finances, loans from local businessman John Fenty were seen as helpful in avoiding administration. But the longer his control of the club continued, the more his fitness for the role was called into question. In late 2020 he was revealed to be in talks with convicted fraudster Alex May, and the supporters’ long-simmering frustration erupted into fury. After Fenty finally sold up in the spring, incoming owners Andrew Pettit and chair Jason Stockwood have made a big impression in a short time. It seems emblematic of the new era dawning at Blundell Park that the duo have immediately taken the first steps towards securing B Corp status for the club – a globally recognised accreditation for ethical business practice.

Stockwood's journey is a fascinating one. After growing up in Grimsby as a “council estate kid”, he graduated in philosophy in the 1990s and set about applying his learning to the burgeoning e-business world. But even as he ascended the echelons at firms like lastminute.com and match.com, he says, the dominant profit-above-all model of neoclassical economics “always felt at odds to me with how I felt the world operated and my own value system”. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, his attention fixed on the bigger picture. “I started to think, what are the ideologies that underpin the way we live our lives in the West, and do they hold up to scrutiny?”

Today Stockwood is vice-chair at commercial insurers Simply Business, which was twice named Best Place to Work in the UK by the Sunday Times and attained B Corp status in 2017. The following year his book Reboot: A blueprint for happy, human business in the digital age was published, and he is currently a visiting fellow in transformational leadership at Oxford University. “My personal narrative is how I've reconciled my natural socialism with my learnt capitalism,” he says, north Lincolnshire accent fully intact.

B Corp certification is granted when an organisation reaches a threshold score for its impact on workers, customers, community and environment. Ben and Jerry’s, Patagonia and the Guardian are among the highest-profile brands to have made the grade. While some business accreditations might seem less than rigorous, a B Corp must embed the scheme's principles into its constitution, compelling its directors to run the show with ethical considerations to the fore. Ongoing reassessment means high standards must be maintained. “Rather than patting yourself on the back, it’s set up as a legal construct so you have to change your articles of association,” Stockwood explains.

After completing their takeover, he and Pettit immediately started auditing the club’s performance on B Corp values. If all goes to plan, Grimsby Town Football Club will become the first B Corp in world professional sport, joining a global community of “like-minded businesses building a coalition of the willing to effect systemic change”.

So what will this mean for supporters? The new owners aim to cut the club’s carbon footprint, but will extra expenditure on, say, green energy, mean a squeeze on the funds available for playing staff and their facilities? Not according to Stockwood, who says B Corp personnel values mean “giving people the tools to do the job” – including a “good playing budget” and potential investment in a new training setup. “This only works and succeeds if we get results on a Saturday,” he emphasises.

Ultimately B Corp status is just one aspect of an ambitious progressive agenda that is informed by Stockwood's background and outlook. Within three weeks of the takeover Grimsby had also become a founder member of the new Fair Game initiative pressing for ethical governance in English football.

“One of the reasons society flourished in the West is really strong community organisations – masons, women’s institutes, trade unions and so on,” says Stockwood. “My identity is so heavily imbued with the town and the club, and football seems to inhabit such a large part of our hearts, that it has to represent something bigger. My sense is that there’s a real opportunity for football clubs as civic institutions to be a force for positive change in our communities.” Pete Green

Photo by Paul Thompson/WSC Photos

This article first appeared in WSC 411, July/August 2021. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here

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