“So the question is, do corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible? And my answer to that is, no they do not”
I came across this quote during my MBA studies and rejected it instantly. Several years prior, while reading Double Dip, I realized the potential for business to create positive change and decided I wanted to leverage that power to make my impact. My personal commitment to that idea is Atayne, the company I launched to inspire positive environmental and social change through the power of sports and active lifestyles.
Recent events (and no, not just the financial crisis) made me think about this quote again, specifically in regards to organizations where the primary purpose appears to be to maximize shareholder wealth in the short-term.
Last week I took a business trip to Seattle. I booked with an airline I am not very fond of to save $50 versus traveling with my favorite, Southwest. ($50 makes a difference to an entrepreneur!) I will not mention the other airline by name, as my intention is not to malign them. However, examples of poor customer service prevailed throughout my trip.
On the flight to Seattle, I learned that Airline X no longer offered complimentary beverages. No big deal. I typically bring my own water. But $2 for a can of soda or bottle of water? I understand times are tough, especially for airlines (and banks!), but $2 for a beverage that probably cost them no more than $0.30 is outrageous.
By the time I landed in Phoenix for a 4-hour layover heading home on a Saturday afternoon, my feelings toward Airline X were less than charitable. Eager to get home, I approached Customer Service to see if I could fly standby on a flight leaving 3 hours earlier. I was told that to go standby, it would cost me a $150 fee plus the difference in fares, even though the flight was half-empty. Did it cost them $150 to change the flight? The agent responded, “Yes it will cost you $150.” I replied, “But will it cost Airline X $150 to print me a new boarding pass?” I got a blank stare and walked away, vowing that I would never fly Airline X again. (A side note: I had “elite” status on Airline X for the past 2 years. You would think that might mean something.)
As I sat in the airport – still fuming — I began to read November’s Fast Company, which includes an interview with Costco CEO Jim Sinegal. The interview opened with this statement, “Wall Street grumbles that Costco cares more about its customers and employees than its shareholders; it…covers 90% of health-insurance costs for both full-timers and part-timers. Yet revenues have grown by 70% in the past five years, and its stock has doubled.” Mr. Sinegal further remarked, “You have to recognize…that people in the business (Wall Street) are trying to make money between now and next Thursday. We’re trying to build a company that’s going to be here 50 and 60 years from now.”
Here is Costco, a company that puts its customers and employees first and shareholders second; their stock price has gone up 21% in the past 3 years. Then you have Airline X, which in my opinion puts their shareholders first, with customers and employees #2: their stock price has dropped ~65% in the past 3 years. As reference: Southwest’s stock has dropped ~27% over the last 3 years.
Milton Friedman was a smart man, but even the smartest people are sometimes wrong. Companies exist in a larger community beyond their shareholders. Those companies which look at their existence in a more holistic way, with a time horizon well beyond the next bonus, are the ones that are much more likely to be successful in the long run. For those who want to make money between “now and next Thursday,” please go to Vegas and get out of the way of companies doing great things in the larger community beyond Wall Street.