Going Bonsai

When “big” is struggling to cope with the shocks sent their way, I’m intrigued by the idea of “bonsai businesses.” Businesses that are perfectly formed yet small enough to handle. It’s just a metaphor, but the Bonsai in my study keeps my attention.

When Heinz glibly tells us to get used to paying more for food, and large businesses are forming disorderly queues in Westminster to persuade the government to intervene in all parts of the extended, fragile business ecosystem they have created, I wonder where all is this might end up. It’s a fascinating thought experiment.

Ever since I worked in the food sector, I have been very conscious of provenance, particularly source and quality. I have an unforgettable memory of being told how much extra margin we could make using “mechanically recovered meat” in products. MRM is a process of stripping the final remnants of meat of a carcase using heat and pressure, which I will not describe further in deference to your breakfast. It was not just the product itself I found repellent; it was the mindset behind it. 

If we were prepared to put this into the product, what other corners might we cut? One of the essential questions I have always carried with me is whether I am prepared to tell my children and grandchildren what I do. This failed by a very, very big margin. This type of thinking, though, is a consequence of a scale mindset. The additional margin is tiny, and making a return of the expensive equipment required high volumes, and preferably not knowing any of your customers personally. 

My local butcher wouldn’t even think of it. He knows where his meat comes from – from local farmers he knows personally, and his added value products – pies and the like are also made locally by people he knows in small units. His reputation is critically dependant on local custom, and whilst he is more expensive than the supermarket, he makes an excellent living. He also will not be affected by shortages of HGV drivers, import challenges, or a shortage of cheap foreign labour. 

If I work at it and am prepared to consume less but better, I can ensure that I am aware of the provenance of the majority of everything from my shoes and clothing through my food and many other items. It means changing my habits and assumptions and means I will be supporting a forest of bonsai businesses, dramatically reducing food miles and recycling money into my local economy. 

It is, of course, a hugely privileged position that many people would find difficult to follow, but the principle is sound, and the question becomes, how do we make it more accessible? 

When we are told that we have to accept highly marketed mediocre products because their big, extensive ecosystem based on lean six sigma thinking isn’t working, it’s probably time to rethink. 

All around us right now are bonsai businesses that need our support. They do not have dividend hungry shareholders or head offices, egotistical nomadic executives, and hordes of efficiency consultants. Instead, they do what they do because they choose to, with pride, and get satisfaction from knowing their customers. They provide community glue.

We cannot replace the big businesses that the cosy relationship between business and politicians has created overnight. Still, we can make choices and give people with an “MRM mindset” pause for thought. I find the idea attractive.

It’s a big small step, going Bonsai.

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