In this section:

The following are references to reports or papers on economic matters that Ron thinks would be of general interest to all but specific interest to many of his students.

November 6, 2018

§1. Profit Is not the purpose of business!

In this series of three brief articles, Ron Ainsbury, Visiting Fellow at the Cranfield School of Management and Senior Fellow at the Research Centre Business Innovation at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, sets out why and how New Zealand directors should be directing efforts to ensure that their businesses have a clear purpose and have the governance systems in place to ensure that the purpose is followed.

Perhaps, by focusing on purpose and embedding the culture and values to support that purpose, much of the unethical behaviour of corporations could be reduced and so much of the focus on the plethora of compliance rules, regulations and procedures minimised.

The Purpose of Business

The IOD’s Four Pillars of Governance Best Practice, states that ‘Corporate governance exists to help organisations achieve their fundamental purpose … typically to maximise shareholder value.’ Why?

This focus on short-term profit and maximising quarterly shareholder value has grown since the US Economist Milton Friedman first stated “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

As a result, since then, most business schools, business commentators and analysts have developed and used various profitability measures such as quarterly earnings per share, to gauge the success of businesses, and stock market investors narrow their focus even further, sometimes to daily profit expectations.

But shareholder value is not a legal requirement. The NZ Companies Act 1993, 131 (1) states that ‘A director of a company, when exercising powers or performing duties, must act in good faith and in what the director believes to be the best interests of the company.’ Australian, US, and UK laws reiterate this, using ‘best interests of the shareholders’ as the guideline for a director’s decision-making.

In recent years the wisdom of focusing a businesses’ purpose on shareholder value has come into question. Martin Wolf writing in the Financial Times wrote: “Almost nothing in economics is more important than thinking through how companies should be managed and for what ends. Unfortunately, we have made a mess of this. That mess has a name: it is “shareholder value maximisation”. Operating companies in line with this belief not only leads to misbehaviour but may also militate against their true social aim, which is to generate greater prosperity.”

This view has been repeated in several articles, for example, James Montier of the global investment firm GMO wrote a well-researched article in which he demonstrated that
shareholder value maximization is “The World’s Dumbest Idea”.

It is time business went back to basics. With a few exceptions, businesses start when an entrepreneur sees a situation where a group of people can have a problem solved. As Peter Drucker once put it, “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”

Creating and keeping customers could mean offering a new product or service that is cheaper, or of higher quality, longer-lasting, is disposable, offers superior performance, offers faster performance, and so on. In each case there is a group of people who are willing to pay for this innovation. If we look at the successful companies of today and trace back to how they first started, we see this clearly:

  • Nike, founded by an athletics coach, who wanted his athletes to have better performing running shoes
  • Google founded by students who wanted to be able to find academic papers on the internet more easily
  • Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wanted to help individuals share experiences with friends
  • Henri Nestlé wanted to help mothers who couldn’t breastfeed
  • Steve Jobs wanted everyone to be able to have computer power in their hands
  • Quakers offered to provide safe custody of gold for 17th century London goldsmiths and founded Barclays!

Each of these companies ventured into unethical behaviour, I assert because as they grew their governance focus shifted from purpose, values, and culture to short-term profitability, most probably as a result of stock market pressures.

Of course, there are many people who start a business simply dreaming they will become rich, but unless they find a market and provide an innovative solution, they won’t. If the entrepreneur manages the new businesses efficiently, then she or he earns a profit on the investment.

Drucker sets out three purposes of profit:

  • validation of the soundness of an enterprise’s efforts (the right purpose)
  • compensation for the risks that the business is incurring (dividends for investors
  • the generation of resources needed to fund future growth (sustainability).

The way to ensure the sustainability of the enterprise is to reinvest in innovation and meeting consumer needs.

Some continually argued against this profit-centred approach. Charles Handy, in the Michael Shanks Memorial Lecture in 1990 argued “To say that profit is a means to other ends and is not an end in itself is not a semantic quibble, it is a serious moral point.” And went on to address the purpose of business.

In recent years there has been a move away from Friedman’s profit-centred focus as business leaders have rediscovered the power of purpose. While John Elkington’s “People Planet Profit” may have started a trend towards businesses taking a lead in being socially responsible (CSR ) this new focus on purpose is not CSR it is central to the business. As David Grayson and others argue in their recently-published book, it is about companies going All In” (“All In: The Future of Business Leadership” by David Grayson, Chris Coulter and Mark Lee. Routledge 2018).

In October 2014 Coca-Cola Enterprise sponsored a “Future for Sustainability” Summit and commissioned a Cranfield School of Management and the Financial Times study, entitled ‘Combining Profit and Purpose’.

In a recent article, the strategy guru, Michael Porter wrote: “A big part of the problem lies with companies themselves, which remain trapped in an outdated approach to value creation that has emerged over the past few decades. They continue to view value creation narrowly, optimizing short-term financial performance in a bubble while missing the most important customer needs and ignoring the broader influences that determine their longer-term success. How else could companies overlook the wellbeing of their customers, the depletion of natural resources vital to their businesses, the viability of key suppliers, or the economic distress of the communities in which they produce and sell? How else could companies think that simply shifting activities to locations with ever lower wages was a sustainable “solution” to competitive challenges?

The role of Purpose is thoroughly set out in a seminal book “The Power of Purpose” by John O’Brien and Andrew Cave, required reading for every CEO and Director, indeed, for anyone interested in starting or running a successful enterprise, whether for profit or not.

Even in the world of investment finance, where the purpose of investing is purely for profit, we see a realisation of the importance of Purpose. Earlier this year Blackrock’s Larry Fink encouraged CEOs to reconsider their purpose writing “Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential.”

“The bottom line result is that purpose-driven, people-centric, values-driven companies outperform. Not just because they do better sustainably over time, but because they avoid the risk. They avoid the Volkswagen and the Tesco problems, and they avoid the thing that wipes 30% off their share prices.” Ann Francke, CEO, CMI

Instead of criticising those who have signed up to the New Zealand Climate Leaders’ Coalition we should all be encouraging all business leaders to go further and focus on the wide range of ESG risks and ensure that their individual businesses have a clear purpose. NZ directors may find that they will need to spend less time on compliance.

Next

In the second article in the series Ron will present the evidence that businesses that focus on purpose and manage responsibly and sustainably, taking into account their potential impact on a wide range of stakeholders, generate superior returns for their investors.

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October 5, 2017

Trust and Business Leadership

Can much of the current political unrest be explained by the decline in trust of our leading institutions by the majority of citizens? A brief read of Edelman’s Trust Barometer might cause one to agree.

https://www.edelman.com/trust2017/

In answer to the question: ‘How much do you trust?’ in a survey of 33,000 respondents aged 18 and over in 25 markets 53% said they trusted NGOs, 52% trusted business, 43% trusted the media, and 41% trusted government. The level of distrust varies across countries but in almost every country there has been a steady decline in trust over the past the past few years.

Table: Distrust figures for selected countries

Reading behind these global figures are some interesting details.

In a crisis government official are only rated as very or extremely credible by 29% of the population, CEOs fared a little better at 37%. Most people are skeptical about what they are told by leader in a crisis.

Edelman sets out the path of a downward spiral as concerns turn into fears. Edelman focuses on five major concerns: corruption, globalization, eroding social values, immigration, and the pace of innovation. As concerns among the population grow to fears their belief in the system is eroded. Trust declines. The risk of population action rises.

Figure: Edelman’s Downward Spiral

    Implications for Business

If CEOs, NGOs. And government are not credible – then who are credible?

A person like me 60%

Technical expert 60%

Academic expert 60%.

Even these figures are not encouraging, 2 out of 5 people do NOT find these people credible!

‘Business plays a role in stoking societal fears’ says Edelman as people worry about losing their jobs because of lack of training ,or to foreign competitors, or to immigrants willing to work for lower wages, or because jobs are moved to offshore. Little surprise then that protectionism is on the rise.

The advice for business is clearly set out. Citizens expect that businesses should stop:

a. Paying bribes
b. Paying senior executives hundreds of times more than workers
c. Moving profits offshore
d. Overcharge for products that are necessities of life
e. Reducing costs by lowering quality …

and instead:

a. Adopt ethical business practices
b. Treat employees well
c. Pay fair share of taxes
d. Listen to customers
e. Offer high quality products / services.

There is a wealth of detail behind these statistics and while details vary from country to country what seems to be clear from Edelman’s report (which has been conducted annually since 2001) is that across the world people are crying out for leadership. And business leaders have the opportunity to provide responsible leadership. But they need to put the interests of consumers and their employees above their own personal desires.

This message is amplified by Simon Sinek in his talk “Why leaders eat last”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReRcHdeUG9Y

September 24, 2017

Will you find a job when you graduate?

I wrote this note primarily for my students at Rotterdam Business School …

One of the major concerns of students and employees is – will the Digital Economy mean less jobs to go around? This fear is compounded in the west by the export of many jobs to lower-wage countries – globalization.

This is a natural concern when looking at recent headlines:

“RBS moves 443 jobs to Mumbai from the UK”
“Mothercare looks to halve the number of stores”
“Will the rise of AI terminate our jobs?”

Even in some of the lower-wage cost countries, jobs are being lost. IBM India recently announced that at least 5,000 jobs might go – and an IBM spokesperson explained: “re-skilling and rebalancing is an ongoing process as we accelerate the benefits of cognitive and cloud technologies for clients around the world”.

The optimist suggests that (as predicted by John Maynard Keynes) that our problem is going to be how to fill the leisure time that is going to be created by day-today jobs being filled by robots of one kind or another. Indeed, Warren Buffett praises companies that reduce staffing levels: “They have followed the standard capitalist formula … of trying to do the same business with fewer people. People live better when there is more output per capita.” But are we living better? The pessimist points out that despite the rise in digitalization and use of robots most people are still working as hard as ever. The realist in me suggests that if everyone is going to benefit from digitalization, artificial intelligence, robotization, etc. – then we are going to need a radical change in how society functions

In the meantime, what are we (and you) going to do? One point of view suggest that in the future we will all be entrepreneurs – that will require new skills and capabilities, particularly creativity.

Perhaps the news from Infosys in India shows the way for those of you who don’t have an entrepreneurial bent. While annual hiring of full-time staff in Infosys India will be lowered to around 6,000 new employees in 2016-17. At the same time 11,000 employees had been moved from manual repetitive tasks and redeveloped them to positions requiring creativity and imagination. Infosys further claims it has retrained 140,000 of its 200,000 staff since 2014 – resulting in higher productivity, more creative positions. So clearly being able to develop new skills helps those at Infosys keep their jobs.

Have business schools kept up with changes? In a 2014 blog, “Business Schools have lost a staggering amount of credibility in the business community” two London School of Economics lecturers assert that many business schools have failed to develop curricula that satisfy the needs of employers who require a workforce that can evolve alongside a continuously changing world.” They point out that what businesses seek is: problem-solving, the ability to connect different aspects of business and think in a holistic way, and the courage to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.

So – what skills and capabilities are you going to learn while you study for your business degree – that will prepare you for the world of tomorrow? Do you know how to learn and keep learning?

In the RBS Graduate Department we are evolving to help you with courses such as Critical Thinking (creative problem-solving) and giving you assignments such as those in International Project and Managing Corporate Sustainability that take you out of your comfort zone forcing you to work with people of different cultures with different ways of thinking and working.

We live in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous). To survive we are going to need to be creative and imaginative. Is your degree helping you prepare?

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June 5, 2014

Stages of Corporate Responsibility Maturity

Ron published a new paper with Prof David Grayson.

The Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility has just published a new Occasional Paper: Business Critical: Understanding a Company’s Current and Desired Stages of Corporate Maturity” by Ron Ainsbury and David Grayson. Legal & General sponsored and contributed to the research for this paper, as well as hosting the launch event on 21 May 2014 at their London headquarters. Graham Precey, Head of Corporate Responsibility and Ethics, Legal and General Group plc wrote the foreword to the paper.

Various academic authors and practitioner experts have described Stages of Corporate Responsibility Maturity. The position of a business in these Stages of Maturity depends on mindset, which is based on elements such as its time-horizon, focus, outlook, attitudes to transparency and relationships (accountability), collaboration, and business model. This in turn influences business purpose, strategy, organisation, policies and practices; and ultimately performance. This new Occasional Paper examines these as a company evolves through Stages of Maturity, along with potential triggers to evolve which, in future, may be linked increasingly to organisational resilience and to performance. Maturity models can help organisations to transform themselves. They can be a tool for boards and senior management teams to help identify where their business now is, where it would like to be and stimulate thinking about how to get there.

The paper presents a series of working hypotheses to be tested and debated. The authors invite feedback, comments, challenges, questions and, examples.

http://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/p22214/Knowledge-Interchange/Management-Themes/Corporate-Responsibility-and-Sustainability/Corporate-Responsibility-and-Sustainability-News/Stages-of-Corporate-Responsibility-Maturity-a-new-occasional-paper

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August 3, 2012

The Economist Big Mac Index

THIS time round our Big Mac index looks at changes since global money-markets seized up in the summer of 2007. The index is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity, which says that exchange rates should eventually adjust to make the price of a basket of goods the same in each country. Our basket contains just one item: the Big Mac hamburger.