The Enlightened Capitalists: Cautionary Tales of Business Pioneers Who Tried to Do Well by Doing Good by James O’Toole
Is it possible for a business to make money without exploiting workers, polluting the environment, dodging taxes (and other social responsibilities), or swindling customers? Well, sure. Probably, anyway. At least for a while, under certain conditions. But it’s not as easy as one might think. And those that try often fail. In this book, a business professor at the University of Southern California profiles some ‘enlightened’ business leaders who have tried, and he explains why so few large corporations have been able to adhere to the enlightened principles of their well-meaning founders.
I’ll try to summarize a few key points that I took away from this below.
*SPOILER ALERT* It all comes down to money.
Every now and then, someone with high ideals will start a business that respects all its stakeholders: owners, workers, customers, the local community, the environment, humanity in general…. It acknowledges its impact on them and its responsibilities to them. That’s an ‘enlightened’ way of looking at business.
But there is another way, a Wall Street way. Many people in the business profession seem to believe that the primary business of any business is to make money. In their eyes, a business has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits for its owners/investors. And that’s pretty much its only responsibility. Everything else, such as making better products, providing good service, creating jobs, responsibly discarding industrial waste…, aren’t necessary. A business still might do such things, as long as they don’t lower profits, but it isn’t obligated to. If it can get away with making cheaper products, charging its customers more, cutting its workforce, working them harder, paying its remaining employees less, discarding its trash in the local duck pond, and then selling the dead ducks as a secondary product line, then that’s what it should do. That’s good business. Profit comes before all else.
So, when in the course of events and the passage of time, control of a business passes from its original enlightened founders and into the hands of investors, priorities change. The business that had once been someone’s life’s work, possibly with a goal of making at least one small corner of the world a better place, comes under the control of people who view it as little more than another profit generator. With little or no personal stake in the business, it’s employees, or the surrounding community, the investors demand higher profits. New managers are brought it, managers who share the ‘normal’ business school outlook. With a keen eye and the ethical principles of loan sharks, they review the practices of the newly acquired business and discard those that don’t add to the next quarter’s profits. If the business still can’t generate the level of profits needed, they have no qualms about dismembering it and selling the parts.
The author doesn’t really provide any solutions to this state of affairs. Sadly, it seems to be an unavoidable consequence of free market capitalism. He is writing, as the subtitle states, a collection of cautionary tales to warn current and future entrepreneurs of what to expect if they seek to go public by selling stock to investors. He’s warning them that they have to decide if the ‘soul’ of their company matters more than the money they can get from selling it.