The Business Roundtable includes CEOs from some of the most recognizable large companies in the US, such as Chase, GM, Johnson & Johnson, and Apple. Think of it as the bluest chips of the Blue Chip listings. Collectively these companies employ over 15 million people, buy almost half a trillion dollars annually from small and medium-sized businesses, and donate eight billion dollars to charities. Frankly, if politicians followed their advice, we’d have a lot more innovation and infrastructure in our nation.
At long last, the Business Roundtable CEOs have outlined – in a policy position – a radical change in the stated intent of a corporation and its leadership. The new direction: that the purpose of a corporation is not to maximize shareholder return but rather to pursue a fundamental commitment to all stakeholders. The stated policy places employees, suppliers, and communities on an equal footing with those who purchase and own their stock, the “shareholders.” One P, profit, has become 3 Ps, People-planet-and-profit.
Too little? Too late? After all, a generation weighed down by student debt, unable to afford a home purchase, and stuck in gig work has a healthy distrust – if not outright disdain – for capitalism. It’s why Bernie Sander’s most reliable support comes from those Democrats who are under 50.
The Roundtable is speaking truth to power. Not surprisingly, The Council of Institutional Investors immediately rebutted the Roundtables statement, saying “accountability to everyone means accountability to no one.” In the previous century, economist Milton Friedman said the same thing. His words started decades of placing profits before people and, more often than CEOs will admit, short-term earnings before the long-term well being of the organization.
In the name of profits, boards have engaged in industry consolidations that make their companies anything but agile, facing more challenging growth hurdles with fewer people to help. Other actions include across-the-board job cuts leading companies like Kraft Heinz to realize they lost their ability to create new products that consumers want.
Companies also take on debt or use profits to buy back stock shares in the interest of raising earnings-per-share, versus invest in innovation. The larger companies have also engaged in political-influence that tilts the playing field in their favor. We call it campaign contributions; other nations would call it bribes.
What is the result of all this help for the shareholder? A less-vibrant competitive economy, with the rate of start-ups slowing, more corporate welfare, and a worsening income distribution. Economists have proven income inequality is bad for economic growth, as is slowing entrepreneurship.
The other outcome of the “profit for a few” mentality is a deep distrust of the corporate sector. The cynicism developed over two generations. My father, born in 1921, worked for Westinghouse all his life and believed that “what was good for GM was good for the USA.” His granddaughter (now 29) thinks Bernie makes a lot of good policy points.
In my opinion, it’s much easier to maximize shareholder wealth in a stock market that rewards short-termism than pursing what the Roundtable now recommends. Balancing the needs of all stakeholders requires understanding trade-offs and finding solutions that cut through conflicts to the benefit of all. It only takes financial talent to cut costs to please shareholders. Creative leaders with a keen understanding of their business, their people, society, and markets are needed to balance and advance all stakeholder needs.
Here are three reasons why the Roundtable’s new policy makes sense:
First, talent is to the 21st century what physical resources were to the 19th and capital was to the 20th centuries. To innovate and grow, companies must place attracting and retaining talent on a par with investor returns.
Second, profit-making opportunities exist in social and environmental causes. When the aim is investor wellbeing, C-Suite leaders put on blinkers that preclude looking for innovations beyond the domain of their current mission. Social responsibility becomes a PR exercise, like Avon’s breast cancer donations. Expand your view to helping people and planet, you discover profitable ways to reduce waste and address social needs. Ben and Jerry’s brownie ice cream helps ex-cons working in a social enterprise bakery. Tom’s Shoes helps house the global poor’s toes. Manufacturers find markets for their waste. Avon could end skin cancer with a broader view of its mission, with better financial results than its breast cancer focus offers.
Finally, investors are getting smarter. They are ranking stocks on climate risk. Social investing is growing leaps and bounds. Think about who will inherit the baby boomers’ wealth. Where will they put it? Not in companies who pursue profits at any cost to others.
Some argue the Roundtable executives’ move is a PR stunt meant to deter the legislative agenda of Warren or Sanders. A more optimistic view is that the Roundtable policy encapsulates leading corporations’ evolving behavior.
In either case, Board members have a defense if not a requirement to challenge more than financial results. And that’s a good thing.