The Rebirth of Stakeholder Capitalism?

Print

By Robert Reich

In recent weeks, the managers, employees, and customers of a New England chain of supermarkets called “Market Basket” have joined together to oppose the board of director’s decision earlier in the year to oust the chain’s popular chief executive, Arthur T. Demoulas.

portrait

Their demonstrations and boycotts have emptied most of the chain’s 70 stores.

What was so special about Arthur T., as he’s known? Mainly, his business model. He kept prices lower than his competitors, paid his employees more, and gave them and his managers more authority.

Late last year he offered customers an additional 4 percent discount, arguing they could use the money more than the shareholders.

In other words, Arthur T. viewed the company as a joint enterprise from which everyone should benefit, not just shareholders. Which is why the board fired him.

It’s far from clear who will win this battle. But, interestingly, we’re beginning to see the Arthur T. business model pop up all over the place.

Pantagonia, a large apparel manufacturer based in Ventura, California, has organized itself as a “B-corporation.” That’s a for-profit company whose articles of incorporation require it to take into account the interests of workers, the community, and the environment, as well as shareholders.

The performance of B-corporations according to this measure is regularly reviewed and certified by a nonprofit entity called B Lab.

To date, over 500 companies in sixty industries have been certified as B-corporations, including the household products firm “Seventh Generation.”

In addition, 27 states have passed laws allowing companies to incorporate as “benefit corporations.” This gives directors legal protection to consider the interests of all stakeholders rather than just the shareholders who elected them.

We may be witnessing the beginning of a return to a form of capitalism that was taken for granted in America 60 years ago.

Then, most CEOs assumed they were responsible for all their stakeholders.

“The job of management,” proclaimed Frank Abrams, chairman of Standard Oil of New Jersey, in 1951, “is to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the various directly interested groups … stockholders, employees, customers, and the public at large.”

Johnson & Johnson publicly stated that its “first responsibility” was to patients, doctors, and nurses, and not to investors.

What changed? In the 1980s, corporate raiders began mounting unfriendly takeovers of companies that could deliver higher returns to their shareholders – if they abandoned their other stakeholders.

The raiders figured profits would be higher if the companies fought unions, cut workers’ pay or fired them, automated as many jobs as possible or moved jobs abroad, shuttered factories, abandoned their communities, and squeezed their customers.

Although the law didn’t require companies to maximize shareholder value, shareholders had the legal right to replace directors. The raiders pushed them to vote out directors who wouldn’t make these changes and vote in directors who would (or else sell their shares to the raiders, who’d do the dirty work).

Since then, shareholder capitalism has replaced stakeholder capitalism. Corporate raiders have morphed into private equity managers, and unfriendly takeovers are rare. But it’s now assumed corporations exist only to maximize shareholder returns.

Are we better off? Some argue shareholder capitalism has proven more efficient. It has moved economic resources to where they’re most productive, and thereby enabled the economy to grow faster.

By this view, stakeholder capitalism locked up resources in unproductive ways. CEOs were too complacent. Companies were too fat. They employed workers they didn’t need, and paid them too much. They were too tied to their communities.

But maybe, in retrospect, shareholder capitalism wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Look at the flat or declining wages of most Americans, their growing economic insecurity, and the abandoned communities that litter the nation.

Then look at the record corporate profits, CEO pay that’s soared into the stratosphere, and Wall Street’s financial casino (along with its near meltdown in 2008 that imposed collateral damage on most Americans).

You might conclude we went a bit overboard with shareholder capitalism.

The directors of “Market Basket” are now considering selling the company. Arthur T. has made a bid, but other bidders have offered more.

Reportedly, some prospective bidders think they can squeeze more profits out of the company than Arthur T. did.

But Arthur T. knew may have known something about how to run a business that made it successful in a larger sense.

Only some of us are corporate shareholders, and shareholders have won big in America over the last three decades.

But we’re all stakeholders in the American economy, and many stakeholders have done miserably.

Maybe a bit more stakeholder capitalism is in order.

Robert Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Republished here under a Creative Commons License from RobertReich.org.

© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

Print

  3 comments for “The Rebirth of Stakeholder Capitalism?

  1. William Barnes
    August 10, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Right on point. Such companies were known as Mutual Companies, who were owned by their employees, the primary stakeholders. Employee owners bring into the Company, the communities in which the employees reside, live and belong, making all of them stakeholders in the business. That bond was destroyed by the venture capitalist who moved in to gobble up, change and squeeze out profits of a successful organization for the sole benefit of the venture capitalists (greed investors). We are finding the same effects from our politicians, individuals engrossed in power and control versus leadership for the benefit of all constituent stakeholders.

  2. August 10, 2014 at 10:39 am

    The Laissez-faire, anti-government Republicans who push deregulation like Reagan and the Bushes aided in this. Unfettered competition without government regulation leads to the loss of competition by allowing mergers and acquisitions that create monopolies, the opposite of what the politicians say they advocate. It also led to the outsourcing of jobs overseas and higher unemployment in the U.S., as well as stagnant and lower wages, which hurts the economy because people do not have money to spend.

    • William Barnes
      August 10, 2014 at 3:33 pm

      Precisely. And, the forthcoming and rising generations have not been schooled in history or economics to see the damages that has been done and continues to be done if unchecked by the government. History and the study of economics is fundamental to understanding political science and the political process. The Republicans are attempting to dismantle the safeguards and benefits Democrats have worked hard to assimilate and put in place over the past 70-100 years for the benefit of every citizen, Democrat and Republican in order for the nation to prosper for all. Especially where Republicans and big business failed the citizenry of the nation. Government, we the people, may not be able to solve all of the problems facing the nation, but I can assure you that Government will do a much better job than business can or ever will be able to do. One thing that every citizen must understand and that is: the power of the people rests in Government!

Comments are closed.