For years now, my colleagues and I here at BoardBench, have been saying that Wall Street has it backwards. In the boardroom, directors have been fed, with a very large spoon, the mantra that they are beholden to the shareholder, that their purpose is to “maximize shareholder value.” If you asked a large group of directors if this is true, you’d see a lot of bobbleheads in the room. Many believe this is a legal requirement and in line with good business sense and good corporate governance. Unfortunately, the concept of “shareholder primacy” is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is also simplistic (shareholders’ wants are not homogenous), has no legal basis anywhere (go ahead, try to prove me wrong), and, as many are now pointing out, usually damaging to companies, and the economy as a whole.
What we believe is real, and will eventually be proven again as real to the Street, is that customers, and employees are the two key drivers of corporate success. When I say “again” I’m referring to Peter Drucker’s famous quote from decades ago: “the purpose of a business is to create and keep customers.” So many seem to have forgotten this, or have never even heard of it.
But the basic premise is this: if you take care of your customers, and have great employees who are well supported and appreciated for being curious and excited about what they do such that they will ensure that customers love the products and services that the company offers, the company and shareholders will reap the rewards, too. Of course other things come into play, like managing R&D investments (with the customer in mind), operations, and supporting a corporate culture that has strong values and morals. The basic premise may be slightly oversimplified, but it applies, and should resonate with the board.
It appears that I’m finally not standing alone on this either. In a recent interview, Jack Ma, the world’s newest CEO darling, made two bold public statements. He basically shunned the current thinking of the Street by stating, on national TV, that “our customers come first, our employees second, and our shareholders third.” He continued: “We aim to be larger than Wal-Mart by 2016, or sooner.” If – no, when – Jack succeeds, and executes flawlessly on his statement, that customers and employees take a front seat over shareholders/investors, then he’s got an excellent chance of passing Wal-Mart as the world’s largest retailer. Note, Wal-Mart just slapped some of its employees, who have the most direct relationship with their customers, by cutting their insurance benefits. This was probably done to cut costs, but it will probably also have a long-term impact on their customer relationships, too. But, I digress.
It seems that too many directors, CEOs, and business leaders, have become obsessed with what Wall Street, its analysts, and shareholders think. Many have learned to play these groups exceptionally well, too. Countless analysts and shareholders have been taken in by companies’ projections, quarterly earnings estimates, and highly creative financial management and reporting. Don’t get me wrong, the importance of the exchanges and the markets cannot be downplayed, but a balance is needed. Focusing on Main Street is just as important, if not more so.
If you follow Main Street, you know about big box discount stores. Costco Wholesale Club, founded by Jim Sinegal and Jeffrey Brotman, believe in serving the customer first, and that if employees are treated properly, they will work with, and treat the customer well too. Jim, the public face, is a “hands on guy” who is known for visiting each individual Costco store. Jim is also outspoken about his views on Wall Street. He’s been known to say that he puts his customers and employee needs above “pleasing shareholders.” This philosophy must be working: Costco’s five year return is +116.73%. If you bought the stock earlier, your return would be closer to 354%.
American Express is another company known for taking good care of its customer/members. Personally I’ve been a fan of the company’s customer service representatives over the years, and tell them that every time I’ve called for help. Don’t get me wrong, working at this company must be tough: when I was younger, AmEx employees were nicknamed The Dragons. Perhaps because they were seen as willing to fight for the company and their customers nearly to the end. By the way, if you invested in American Express five years ago, your return on investment would be up 149.46%.
If you’ve worked with the general retail public, as I did during my college years, then you know just how tough this can be. Sadly, not everyone who enters a store, calls a helpline, or dines in a restaurant is a kind and thoughtful customer. Amazon deals with all sorts of customers from nearly every continent in the world, and I’m sure they have some interesting stories to share. However, the company is noted for being one of the best customer service organizations in the world. Amazon has more than one customer base, as many do: retail members, and consumers. Jeff Bezos clearly divided the customer’s connection to Amazon into two categories: the experience and the service. At this level, he notes that customer service is part of the full customer experience. If it’s unpleasant, it’s a negative customer experience. He supports the idea that a positive customer experience creates greater loyalty with Amazon. If you’ve ever dealt with an Amazon Customer Service rep, you know that they work quickly to resolve your issue, they get the job done for you, and you are nearly always satisfied and left feeling good about your relationship with Amazon. And, if you invested in Amazon five year ago, your return on investment is now up 236.64%.
While it’s much more pleasant to focus on the “good guys,” there are dark clouds. Some companies are noted for their poor customer service. Some survive because there are few alternatives: think of phone companies and cable providers, and some you can name on your own (take a look at their five-year ROIs). However, when it comes to poor customer experience these days, I think sadly of that American icon Sears. Whenever I bring them up these days, all I hear is: “Oh my gosh, I could tell you about the time when…” Sears is a sad story about the decline of a once great and loved retail giant. Many years ago, the Sears catalog used to be called a “wish book.” Families would anxiously wait for it to arrive in the mail. It was nearly 5 inches thick. Moms, dads, sisters, and brothers would argue over whose turn it was to browse through and select from among the items they wanted for birthdays, holidays, special occasions and more. Some people even bought their homes out of the Sears catalog. But, it has lost its way, and it’s touch with its customers and has already begun its drop down that magical slide once pictured in its own catalog. The entire company and its hopes for the future look pretty dismal: sell off of units and real estate, store closings, etc. Sadly, if you invested in Sear’s five years ago, your return on investment would be -58.50% and it’s still falling today.
To sum up and put things into even sharper perspective, I recently spoke with the General Counsel of one of the largest, most recognized corporations in the world. He told me, succinctly, that the biggest problem with their board is that not one director had any understanding of who their customers were and are or what they want. I can also assume that they don’t understand their employees either. So I will watch how this company slides in the next few years (Note: their record has been negative for some time), and report back with an update, unless, that is, they somehow figure it out and turn it around.
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Nancy May is President and CEO of The BoardBench Companies, a corporate governance advisory firm whose services includes: director search/succession services, board evaluations, director education, and individual director candidate coaching advisory services.