Can a business do well and do good?

(or even because it does good)

0
Stewart Sallo | Boulder Weekly

As we pass another milestone in the Boulder Weekly journey — this one with a big 21 prominently displayed — I have a confession to make about this newspaper that has never been shared with our readers: Boulder Weekly is a corporation.

You read that right: a corporation. And I’m not talking about a nonprofit corporation (although, believe me, there have been times in the not-too-distant past where the term “nonprofit” would have been hitting the nail squarely on the head). In terms of corporate status, Boulder Weekly, Inc. is viewed by the Colorado Secretary of State as being identical to any other corporation doing business in the Centennial State. Ball Corporation, for example, has the same corporate status as Boulder Weekly; Coors Brewing Company is a fellow corporation; Big O Tires, Frontier Airlines, King Soopers, Quizno’s, The Sports Authority, Vail Resorts and Ultimate Electronics are all viewed by the State of Colorado as having the same rights and responsibilities as Boulder Weekly.

The “Great Recession,” which began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, generated widespread international disdain for corporations, particularly within the banking industry largely blamed for the “Subprime Mortgage Crisis,” which coincided chronologically with what has been generally described as the worst global recession since World War II.

More recently, the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Trade Commission case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations may not be limited in their contributions to political campaigns, opened the door for even greater influence on the part of these wealthy and powerful entities, thereby weakening the democratic process by drowning out the voices of common citizens.

We live in a world that is increasingly controlled by corporations and the negative consequences of this trend are becoming clear to most of us. We have every reason to be cynical and mistrustful of corporations, as we have seen overwhelming evidence that instructs us as to the true intentions that many corporations hold, and their willingness to engage in unethical practices to achieve them.

But all corporations are not created equally. For example, despite having the same legal corporate definition as Coors Brewing Company International, Inc., Boulder Weekly, Inc. is fundamentally different in ways that set our organization apart from the type of corporate entities that have (rightly) generated such enormous public mistrust. Out of deference to the limitations of space I will focus on what I consider to be the most salient difference: ownership.

It’s probably a safe assumption that if you’re reading this week’s Boulder Weekly you also have a smartphone. If you have a smartphone you are doing business with a network provider, such as Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile. Let’s use Verizon for the purposes of a little foray into the way corporations work. When you deal with Verizon, who creates the policies under which your relationship is structured? The answer is: Verizon does. You have little power in participating in the way your relationship with Verizon is structured, short of choosing from the plans they offer. You are not at liberty to negotiate an agreement that suits your individual needs. Rather, you will either accept one of the limited plans offered by Verizon or you can look at another service provider (and you will not find the offerings of any of Verizon’s competitors to be substantially different).

Now, who owns Verizon? The answer ranges from nobody to anybody. All one needs to do to be a part of Verizon’s ownership group is to buy a share of stock. The current price: about $46 (and changing by the minute). If you’re unhappy with the service Verizon is providing, can you contact any of the owners to express your dissatisfaction and negotiate a new agreement that will better meet your needs? Of course not. The “owners” of Verizon are not accountable to the customers of the company they own. Therefore, if you are a Verizon customer you are doing business with a corporation that is owned by individuals with no accountability or concern for the satisfaction of their customers. In that sense nobody owns Verizon.

What does concern the owners of Verizon? One thing: that the price of Verizon stock continues to rise. If the price rises, investors will keep their money in Verizon stock (and perhaps even purchase more); if the price falls, investors may sell their stock and invest it elsewhere. What this means is that there is an inherent conflict of interest between the needs of Verizon’s owners and its customers.

Publically traded corporations have a board of directors and a team of managers. These are the people who make the policies that govern the way the company is run. Because of the dynamics that exist in such corporations, the suits in the board room and the corporate office will make decisions with one objective in mind: pleasing stockholders. This means that you, as a customer, are nothing more than a footnote in the equation of what drives the company’s policies. This is true of virtually every publically traded corporation you can name.

The question has often been posed: Can a businesses do good and do well? Or, put another way: Can corporations operate with high ethical standards and still succeed? Lawrence Summers says the answer is no. Summers is an American economist with a resume that establishes him as one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject, including professor of economics at Harvard University, chief economist of the World Bank, Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, president of Harvard University and director of the National Economic Council. Summers answered the question like this:

“It is hard in this world to do well. It is hard to do good. When I hear a claim that an institution is going to do both, I reach for my wallet. You should too.”

I am prepared to contest Summers’ answer to this important question. To do so, let’s look at the ownership of Boulder Weekly, Inc. For those who missed the interview I did with myself in our 20th Anniversary Edition (http:// bit.ly/1wBvXvo), I am the sole owner of Boulder Weekly, Inc. As the owner I am concerned with two things: that my business does good and that it does well. And in all honesty, it is more important to me that Boulder Weekly does good than well, which is why you will see us tackling stories that our friends in the corporate media won’t. For example, when we learned of potentially hazardous pollution in the ground beneath the city-owned Boulder Dushanbe Tea House, we investigated the issue thoroughly and reported our findings to our readers, knowing that not everyone who buys advertising would be pleased with our reporting. And we have done countless other stories over the years that told the truth our readers need and deserve to hear, despite the very real financial consequences of doing so.

The Tea House story was published in 2013, and for our journalistic work that year we received 36 Rocky Mountain Region SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists) awards — more than any other newspaper in our fourstate region. But here’s where I get to make my point: 2013 happened to be Boulder Weekly’s second most successful year, financially speaking. And we followed that trend in 2014 by continuing to “do good” and had our most financially successful year in our 21-year history.

Independent ownership alone does not account for Boulder Weekly’s status as a “corporation” that does good and does well, but it is my contention that this factor is paramount. Regardless of the reasons, it is possible for a business to do good and do well. More importantly, it is possible for a business to do well because it does good.

I believe you have chosen to read Boulder Weekly for this reason, and we are grateful to you for enabling us to put out a brand of journalism that truly makes a difference. To whatever extent is possible, I would suggest that you employ this same method in choosing what restaurants to patronize; where to buy groceries, clothes, books, cosmetics, shoes and furniture; even where to get a pedicure, a mocha latte, a bottle of wine or a gift. Boulder County is blessed with wonderful independent businesses that are just as concerned with doing good as they are with doing well. Reward them with your patronage and be a part of their commitment to doing good in the world. By doing so you, too, are doing good.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com