A few weeks ago, the Business Roundtable, a group of nearly 200 senior executives including heads of companies like Apple, Amazon, Walmart and Target, announced a startling move.
My colleague Justin Bariso covered it at the time:
- Previously, their official statement was that the “purpose of a corporation” was to benefit its “shareholders”.
- Now they say it’s for the benefit of “stakeholders”.
If you believe statements like this are important, this is a radical change. If you don’t, it’s a burger with nothing. There is no in-between.
But the discussion got me thinking about how stakeholders in public companies and private companies might not be the same list of people. I mean, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook can be part of a band that says whatever it takes, but you run your business.
The difference is obvious: no public investors in a private company. Beyond that, though, I think it’s a really interesting exercise to think about this.
I’ve listed below the top seven stakeholders in a private business that many people would agree on. But I know that wouldn’t be a unanimous or consensual response.
Damn, the Wikipedia entry for “Stakeholder (company)“itself has more entities listed.
So, an idea. Let me know which ones you agree with, which you think I’m exaggerating – and especially if you’re a private business owner or shareholder – which are legitimately owed by a private business.
You can email me at billmurphyjr [at] inc.com – and if we get enough responses, I’ll share the comments in a future column.
Here are the seven big stakeholders I think of in private business:
- Founders and owners. I guess everyone agrees that founders and owners of private businesses are key stakeholders. Having said that, of course I hear a lot of stories of founders working without pay while their employees make salaries from home – or having their interests subverted for the benefit of investors.
- Customers. Yes, without them you don’t have much. But there is a tension: Sometimes the better you treat customers, the worse they end up treating you.
- Employees. Here is one of the main tensions in the larger debate. Sometimes it seems like there is a zero-sum game between employees and other stakeholders – largely investors and potentially founders.
- Investors. This is the traditional theory of Milton Friedman, and one from which the Business Roundtable seemed to be moving away. There must be “a” duty to investors of course, otherwise investors will not invest. But should it be the only duty?
- Creditors. At first glance, they hurt each other: you already have their money, don’t you? Why worry too much about what they do after the deal? Well, for starters, I hope you expect to make more than one deal.
- Families. I wondered whether to include families, because if we are talking about families of founders, employees, investors, etc., then their interests flow from these other stakeholders. But there could be something here.
- Competitors. A little toned down maybe, but it’s smart to have a good relationship with others in your industry. Do you owe them something more?
- Community. Here we have the largest community at large. Of course, it’s hard to think about how you measure a company’s contribution to its community. Does he organize community events? Be green? Something else? The community is also related to “customers” in the sense that customers (and potential customers) are part of the community.
Okay, that’s my opinion. Let me know what you think, and we’ll get to that soon if I get enough good answers.