§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.
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.