Cheryl Header Image

Category: CEO Activism

CEO Activism Trickling Down to Smaller Brands in Abortion Debate

It was slow in coming, the CEO response to anti-abortion laws across Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia, Indiana and others. But it came. Just not from the CEOs you might have expected to lead the charge for women’s rights and equality.

It came from the CEOs of B and C and D list companies, most of which you’ve never heard of and won’t remember. CEO activism is trickling down from the most rich and powerful CEOs to a widening group that feels a responsibility to speak up for what it thinks is right.

Three weeks ago, seven women CEOs put a full page ad in the New York Times with a call to action: “For too long, corporate America has been largely silent on speaking up for sexual and reproductive health and rights. That must change. Today, we loudly and boldly declare that we will not be silent in defense of fundamental human rights and we challenge our peers in the business community to do the same. Now is the time to speak up.”

Last week, the CEO of SeekingArrangement, Brandon Wade, spoke up in his own way, committing to paying for travel and abortions for those who are unable to access abortions in their home state. He was moved to act upon learning that the law in Alabama would be hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable women.

On Monday, more than 180 CEOs, organized by Planned Parenthood and other rights organizations, signed an open letter in a full page ad in the New York Times entitled “Don’t Ban Equality: It’s time for companies to stand up for reproductive healthcare.”

The ad provides a business perspective on the abortion debate, framing it as a question of equality, which is critical for business success: “Restricting access to comprehensive reproductive care, including abortion, threatens the health, independence and economic stability of our employees and customers. Simply put, it goes against our values and is bad for business.”

It might seem distasteful to frame this discussion as one about business. But the CEOs are speaking from a distinct and legitimate perspective. Every issue, from immigration, to education, to health care, to LGBT rights, has a business perspective that enriches discussion and debate. Will this argument change the average person’s mind on abortion? Probably not. But it should certainly give politicians, who are responsible for their constituents’ broad interests, pause.

The social media reaction has been predictable – employees applauding their CEOs for standing up for their rights, consumers threatening to boycott brands, deleting their Yelp app, and those that feel unelected CEOs should leave the matter to politicians.

The glaring absence, of course, are the A-list CEOs. While the CEOs of Netflix and Disney have said they may stop filming in Georgia, one of the states with new legislation and a huge film industry, it’s clear they are being driven not by their own values but because their actors are flexing their own huge power. The five pages of names on a CEO letter that objected so quickly and in unison for LGBT rights in 2016 have been almost entirely absent from the current discussion. People have noticed.

 

Levi’s Bergh Completes IPO While Advocating for Gun Control

What if business leaders are looking at the risk of CEO activism exactly backwards? What if publicly advocating for gun control while marketing an IPO was not an enormous and unnecessary risk, but a differentiator in a crowded market?

Last week, the storied Levi Strauss & Co. completed its second IPO, selling US$623.3 million of shares, valuing the company at US$6.6 billion. The stock promptly climbed by more than a third in its first two days of trading.

A small or sometimes overlooked footnote of the successful return to the stock market is that through the months leading up to the IPO, during the marketing period, and when the shares were being priced, Chip Bergh, Levi’s CEO, was speaking out about gun control.


In September, Bergh wrote a piece for Fortune, (also posted to Levi’s site), announcing a US$1 million fund for activists trying to end gun violence, the formation of Everytown Business Leaders for Gun Safety, together with Michael Bloomberg, and actions and money to support employee initiatives.

He wrote at the time:

“As president and CEO of a values-driven company that’s known the world over as a pioneer of the American West and one of the great symbols of American freedom, I take the responsibility of speaking up on the important issues of our day very seriously. We can’t take on every issue. But as business leaders with power in the public and political arenas, we simply cannot stand by silently when it comes to the issues that threaten the very fabric of the communities where we live and work. While taking a stand can be unpopular with some, doing nothing is no longer an option.”

It wasn’t the first time Bergh had spoken up about guns. In 2016, he wrote an open letter asking people to stop bringing guns into Levi’s stores, after a customer shot himself accidentally while trying on a pair of jeans. More than two years later, that LinkedIn post is still attracting comments from both supporters and people referring to themselves as “ex-customers.”

For example: “Why a struggling company would voluntarily alienate half its customer base is a mystery to me. Maybe you can explain it in bankruptcy court.” Far from being bankrupt, 2018 sales rose 14% to US$5.6 billion.

By the time Levi’s shares became available, people knew what Bergh was about. Investors knew he was outspoken about guns despite the fact it has nothing to do with the clothing business. And he didn’t hide his intentions in the IPO prospectus:

“Finally, it means using our influence as a successful business with global reach and powerful brands to advocate for social good and to give back to our communities.”

Bergh is using his personal influence and platform as a CEO. He was one of just four signatories of a CEO letter to Congress supporting H.R. 8, The Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, to require background checks on all U.S. gun sales. He signed that letter just a month before shares began trading, in what would have been a “quiet period.” Such quiet periods don’t prevent CEOs from talking about outside issues, but most companies treat quiet periods as reason for the C-suite to stay completely silent.

So why was Bergh able to get away with it? Why did he feel comfortable taking what most CEOs saw as too big of a risk to sign at all, right before the IPO?

The first time a CEO speaks up on an issue, it feels like a huge risk – to the brand, to your personal reputation, to sales. Bergh, though, has been on the record about this fight for more than two years. Over time, his actions have been part of the brand. Most customers who were likely to bail on Levi’s (or set their jeans on fire à la Nike) already have a different brand on their behinds. The customers that expect CEOs to speak out, use their platform, are more loyal.

The lesson Bergh is teaching here, is that while CEO activism feels risky in the beginning, the marginal risk likely falls with time, and people come to understand it is part of the brand, take it or leave it.

While it’s a sample size of one, it’s an interesting case study for CEOs weighing their own options on speaking up. And frankly makes the CEOs who were afraid to sign the letter to Congress look a little weak.

 

U.S. CEOs Join TOMS’ Blake Mycoskie to Lobby for Gun Control

The founder of TOMS Shoes, Blake Mycoskie, decided in November 2018 to try to do something about gun control in the U.S. On Monday, Mycoskie was publicly joined by three CEO peers, who co-signed a letter to members of Congress, calling for them to pass an act calling for background checks.

Levi Strauss & Co.’s Chip Bergh, RXR Realty’s Scott Rechler and Dick’s Sporting Goods’ Edward Stack have each spoken out about gun control before, but joining their voices together is an important moment in CEO activism. Each has determined that they can and should use their profile and influence to guide the country in ways they believe right.

Mycoskie reveals that about 12% of TOMS customers will cease to buy his shoes as a result of his gun activism, but that other customers will be more loyal and new customers will be attracted to the brand. Each CEO had to make their own decision about the net effect of activism on their sales and their employee retention, but Mycoskie and the other CEOs are now running test cases of how CEO activism impacts brand.


At the same time, because these CEOs have joined together, they have provided air cover for other CEOs who want also speak out in support of this movement, but are concerned about the impact on their brand. Mycoskie, Bergh and Stack in particular, being more well-known, and first movers, are the ones that will be named CEOs in any media coverage, significantly reducing the risk to the next group of CEOs who join.

Whether the CEOs’ letter will have any impact on the House vote on Wednesday is questionable. But certainly they have shown their stakeholders who they are as CEOs.

CEOs Taking on Doug Ford in Fight for Universal Basic Income

Floyd Marinescu had been studying the idea of universal basic income for a couple of years when Doug Ford took over the premier’s office in 2018 and cancelled Ontario’s pilot project. The CEO of C4Media saw how a guaranteed basic income could help abused women, exploited workers, and the sick and encourage entrepreneurism. And he saw how his own successful business was disrupting the labour market, over time making it harder for Ontario workers to survive. So he publicly challenged Doug Ford, something most CEOs were loathe to do about anything. In doing so, Marinescu and the more than 120 CEOs who signed an open letter supporting universal basic income changed the policy narrative, helping to build grassroots support for a program that government would be hard-pressed to enact alone.

Marinescu and Pythian CEO Paul Vallée, who co-led the CEO group, are among a new generation of Canadian CEOs who believe they have a role in civil society, and as owners of their own companies are unhampered by many of the risks with which  CEOs of publicly traded companies grapple.

Through their advocacy, this CEO group is changing the narrative of universal basic income. By presenting a business case for it, they have made it harder for governments to dismiss the idea, and armed politicians who support the idea, arguing that what is good for the poor can also be good for business. And if that’s the case, exactly whom is Doug Ford protecting by cancelling the pilot project before the data is even in?

Universal basic income is just one of myriad issues that would be more richly discussed if CEOs spoke up publicly and challenged the common narrative. But it takes a commitment to the greater good and broader economic prosperity from CEOs mired in short-termism, and the courage to challenge government leaders prone to vindictiveness to get to better outcomes.

Because most of the CEOs who joined Marinescu and Vallée own small to mid-sized private companies, they are also free of shareholders, boards and other stakeholders that stop leaders of bigger public companies from stepping into the fray of a discussion that doesn’t directly affect the success of their business.

There are signs that more CEOs are getting on board with a growing trend of CEO activism, though. Witness the discussion RBC CEO Dave McKay and Enbridge CEO Al Monaco had at the Canadian Cub in Toronto this week about energy policy. They discussed the opportunity of national prosperity that would come with a proper national strategy on energy, and the consequences of not having one. Yet McKay and Monaco’s call to action is more easily dismissed than that of Marinescu and Vallée, because both of their companies’ fortunes are directly tied to building pipelines.

That is not to say that McKay and Monaco should not be speaking out – quite the contrary. But we also need CEOs from consumer goods companies, manufacturing and agriculture to speak out about energy policy. Energy and transportation infrastructure matter to all businesses and people. CEOs from other industries are thus less easily dismissed in the discussion because they are advocating for a more successful society for everyone.

Too many of our public debates pit interests of people against the interests of business. Yet so often, what’s good for business is also good for people. We need more CEOs to follow the lead of Marinescu and Vallée and explain why.

Read more about Marinescu’s op/ed on UBI  in the Financial Post here and the launch of the CEOs’ initiative last fall here, in the Toronto Star.

Trust = Power. But Canadian CEOs are Wasting The Opportunity

Edelman Canada President and CEO Lisa Kimmel presented the Canadian results of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer at the Toronto Board of Trade this morning. Having worked with the data closely when I worked with Lisa, launch day is a bit like Christmas for me, and has strongly influenced my thinking.  

This year’s data reinforced for me both the business imperative and the opportunity that Canadian CEOs have to change the way our country talks about public and social policy, along with news of the day.

Consider a few stats and findings side by side.

  1. 50% of the mass population* say the system is failing them
  2. Trust in business is ≧ trust in government

3. Trust in regular employees (55%) > trust in CEOs (41%) > trust in government officials (38%)

4.  67% of respondents agreed that “It’s critically important for my CEO to respond to challenging times”, such  as industry issues, political events, national crisis and employee-driven issues.

So you have a huge proportion of the country that feel the system is failing them, suggesting something has to give. We have to change how issues are debated and how policy is made. They trust business  as least as much as government, and expect business leaders to be part of the solution. CEOs are more trusted than government officials, who are dead last in the trusted spokespeople category when forming an opinion about a company. And employees both expect the CEO to engage in the conversation, and are more trusted than the CEO in building company reputation.

And yet. CEOs, for a whole host of very valid reasons (including a difficulty in measuring risk), some poor excuses (e.g. it’s not my job), and a systemic lack of courage, have been completely absent in some very important political events over the last few months.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford fires Hydro One’s CEO Mayo Schmidt, forces out the board, effectively kills Hydro One’s deal with Avista, creating a hundred-million-dollar-plus break fee. The impact is a poisoning of the business climate in Ontario that (if we’re lucky) will outlast Ford. CEO collective public response? Crickets.

The Trudeau government sets out a plan for a carbon tax designed to curb pollution, and over time change business behaviour, in an effort to protect the environment. Collective business response? Crickets. Really? No one outside directly affected business had anything important to say?

(I will give a pass for the moment that CEOs aren’t speaking up about the SNC Lavalin/Justice Minister affair. That one is a hot mess.)

CEOs are simply absent from the most important public debates of the day, all of which are important to business. They are afraid. They believe it’s not their job. And they have enough on their plates without being told their employees expect them to wade into the headlines.

But. There is so much white space for the first few CEOs who are willing to speak up, take risks, and say out loud what they are saying behind closed doors. And that can provide them a competitive advantage that is good for business, including that their employees might stick around.

 

*See the Edelman Trust Barometer for definitions and survey methodology. It matters.

Larry Fink, The CEO Activist’s Father

The annual missive from the CEO of the largest money manager in the world is out today. Simply addressed “Dear CEOs” these letters read a bit like a letter from your dad, with “suggestions” on how to be a better CEO. It’s advice that you can take, or…take, given that with about $6 trillion in assets under management, Larry Fink wields a wee bit of power. While much of BlackRock’s money is invested in index funds (and thus not directed subjectively,) the impact of Fink’s disapproval of your firm is one not to be tested.

CEO power extends far beyond the confines of the job description. The job includes decisions on whom to partner with, where to invest and create jobs, who to hire and fire. But with each of those decisions, a CEO implicitly or explicitly reinforces a company’s values and purpose. They can choose to use that power to make the world a better place or not. They can choose to be activists or not. Larry Fink is using his power to push CEOs to use their power. (It’s all very meta.)

Over the years (past letters are also on BlackRock’s site), Fink has pushed CEOs to think about governance, prioritizing long-term strategy, and the theme of this year’s letter, to build social purpose into the company’s fabric.

He calls on business leaders to step in where governments are failing.

“Stakeholders are pushing companies to wade into sensitive social and political issues – especially as they see governments failing to do so effectively.”

“As CEOs, we don’t always get it right,” he writes. “Companies cannot solve every issue of public importance, but there are many – from retirement to infrastructure to preparing workers for the jobs of the future – that cannot be solved without corporate leadership.”

Moreover, “Unnerved by fundamental economic changes and the failure of government to provide lasting solutions, society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues.”

It’s this failure of government to make substantive progress on the issues of our day that we need CEOs to both partner with and challenge government, whether it be on universal basic income, pipelines, or homelessness. While Fink hasn’t explicitly called for CEO activism, he’s leading by example.

He has been clear that he’s not going to tell CEOs what their companies’ social purpose should be, just that he expects them to have one. And in that way, Fink is using his personal clout, backed by the weight of his company, to push for good.

Of the many ways that CEOs can be activists, this is one of the most powerful. Fink has effectively created an urgency, an impetus, and air cover, for CEOs to have conversations with their management teams, their boards and their shareholders about how to build social purpose into the fabric of their company. He’s even giving them the language to use (and he put it in bold font so you don’t miss it): “Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.”

Help Refugees to Boost Business – NYU Stern Report

Hamdi Ulukaya bought an abandoned yogourt factory in 2005. Today, Chobani is a $1.5 billion company, maker of the best-selling Greek yogourt in the U.S. Ulukaya’s path, from the son of nomadic Turkish sheep farmers to yogourt king is interesting in its own right. But it’s the success of Chobani twinned with Ulukaya’s work supporting refugees that makes him a different kind of CEO. Thirty percent of Chobani’s 2000+ employees are refugees.

To get other companies to commit publicly to supporting refugees, Ulukaya started Tent Partnership for Refugees. This morning, Tent released a research report authored by researchers at NYU Stern to give other businesses a good shove to take their own action on refugees. The study found that on the whole, you’ll have a net gain of customers if you take some action to support refugees, whether it be donating money, providing support services, or hiring them, as Chobani committed to do.

The online study of 7,139 U.S. respondents noted that women, non-whites, and Millennials were all more likely than the average to support you if you support refugees, findings that are in line with many other studies.

Knowing though, that not all businesses depend on the average American as their customer, the study noted that supporting refugees abroad, rather than in the U.S. was less polarizing, giving those companies that want to help but are afraid of a backlash, a way forward.

Source: How Helping Refugees Helps Brands, 2018, NYU Stern

As with most research on consumer attitudes towards corporate and CEO activism, this study asks about buying intentions rather than actions, so there’s a significant caveat to the findings. Chobani itself probably has some of the best data on the impact on sales from the efforts of its CEO, but as it’s a private company, we’re unlikely to see it. And given how ingrained Ulukaya’s activism is embedded in the company brand now, it would be hard to extract the impact in a definitive way.

The data in Canada on attitudes to refugees and immigrants is all over the map. A Pew Research Center report in September said 74% of Canadians support taking refugees. By contrast, the live poll within a resulting Toronto Star story showed that 55% of the 1761 respondents did not. An Angus Reid poll in August said that they want the federal government’s 2018 target for immigration dropped, compared with 36% in 2014.

Suffice to say that if the data is so conflicting, it’s hard for a Canadian CEO to really know how customers are going to react if the company pledges support for refugees. (There’s an entire other question about how support for “refugees” and “immigrants” differs.) Perhaps that’s why the few CEOs (founders, really) willing to take public action to support refugees lead private companies. 

Mohamad Fakih took the risk. The Lebanese-born immigrant started Paramount Fine Foods in Mississauga, Ont., and turned it into a 60+ Middle Eastern food restaurant chain. Like Ulukaya, Fakih has committed to hiring refugees, more than 150 in 2017.

Fakih is now working with the UNHCR to find more ways to help refugees build new lives in Canada, focused on employment and supporting new business launches.

“The private sector has a huge role to play in fostering better prospects for refugees in Canada – and it makes good business sense, too,” Fakih said in the news release. It’s fair to say that his activism has at least not gotten in the way of building his loyal customer base.

Without research that demonstrates more clearly the link between customer buying intentions to buying actions, however, public companies will be reluctant to take action, particularly given the incredibly risk averse profile of CEOs and boards in Canada. More to come on that another day.

TOMS Founder Blake Mycoskie Dials Up Activism

It’s “a lonely position to take.” That’s what  Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh told TOMS founder and former CEO Blake Mycoskie about his plan to take a stand on gun violence. Get some personal security, Bergh said, according to an excellent piece in Fast Company.

On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Monday night, Mycoskie, announced that he was making a $5 million contribution to organizations fighting gun violence, and had set up on TOMS website a way for Americans to send an actual postcard (nice touch) to their representatives, calling for universal background checks, in 30 seconds. In doing so, Mycoskie has jumped into one of the most polarizing debates in America today, using his company’s weight as a tool.


Mycoskie already knows from experience of what one person can do by intertwining business and social activism. (The 86 million pairs of shoes he’s given away thanks to his business model are a pretty convincing proof point.) His tipping point on gun violence was a phone call from his wife after the recent shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif., near where they lived. She was afraid to take their child out.

This campaign is filled with risk, though less so than you might think. Yes, some stores may drop his brand, while others will become more loyal. But data suggest his target customers will embrace the effort – 71% of millennials expect CEOs to use their positions and influence to advocate for causes they believe in according to a recent Stanford study.

The operational risk is a bit higher. He completely overturned TOMS planned Black Friday strategy with 12 days’ notice.

Here’s what the U.S. site’s landing page looks like today, on U.S. Thanksgiving:

versus what landing page on the dot ca site.

He’ll have data in a few days on the impact on one of the biggest shopping weekends of the year. Did the people who made an impulse purchase or made a purchase to support him after sending their postcard outweigh those who went to the site to buy shoes and bounced because they were turned off by the campaign? Did the news and social media coverage help find new lifelong customers?

One of the important parts of this story, from a CEO activism perspective, is that Bain Capital, which owns 50% of TOMS, said yes when he told partners what he wanted to do. In doing so, Bain is tacitly accepting reputational risk. It’s unlikely that Mycoskie could have done this if TOMS was a widely held public company. Most of the CEO activism that we’re seeing in the U.S. today is coming from CEO founders who control their companies and are immensely successful.

It might seem that the $5 million donations and a postcard campaign are relatively small things when measured against the size of the gun violence problem facing the U.S. Mycoskie chose after all, to address an aspect with almost universal agreement among Americans – universal background checks. Yet he is indeed in a lonely place right now, as Levi’s’ Bergh said. In doing so, he carries the burden of media attention, backlash and reputation risk. In doing so, he has provided air cover for other CEOs who want to step up. The third, fourth or fifteenth CEO to join in his action, faces much much lower risk, as was illustrated in 2016 when Salesforce’s Marc Benioff took a stand against 2016 legislation that was anti-LGBT rights in Georgia. Hundreds of CEOs eventually joined that movement that helped push back on that bill, but mostly their participation will be a footnote.

P.S. Here’s a great profile of Blake Mycoskie from CNBC.

 

CEO Activists: The Answer is in the Data. You May Just Have to Wait a Decade

Last month, Stanford’s David F. Larcker and Brian Tayan published 2018 CEO Activism Survey, a U.S. survey (included at the end of this post) of 3,544 people across age, gender and political leanings to ask about CEO activism. The findings in the survey echo others in the past couple of years. Almost two-thirds believe CEOs should be CEO activists, but millennials have very different expectations from brands and CEOs than older cohorts. 71% of millennials expect “CEOs of large companies to use their position and potential influence to advocate on behalf of social, environmental, or political issues that they care about personally”, versus 46% of baby boomers.

Interestingly, Larcker and Tayan show that there’s also a big schism between Republicans and Democrats – 72% of Democrats agree, versus 57% of Republicans.

Both statistics tell both brand managers and CEOs something that should already be obvious – when deciding if, when and how a CEO should speak up, it’s critical to know who your target customers are, and the relative lifetime values of various subgroups. In a world where staying silent is no longer equated as staying neutral, CEOs are being increasingly put in a position where they have to speak up or take an action, and it’s a given that some people will agree and some will disagree. Knowing whether your alienating an occasional shopper with no brand loyalty, or a young loyalist with a potential 40-year relationship with your brand can make the decision easier. Not knowing can be fatal.

Nike’s decision to run the Colin Kaepernick ad campaign is the most obvious example of this. Nike was counting on the loyalty of its core customers’ and brand advocates’ support of Kaepernick to be solidified, knowing it would likely alienate another group of people. I’m willing to bet the company knew exactly who fell into the latter camp – people who buy white running shoes and only at the outlet mall and don’t have 40 years of purchasing power ahead of them.

While Larcker and Tayan reinforce the importance of CEO activism, the gap in academic research that still remains is a longitudinal study of what shoppers actually do in the face of that activism. It’s one thing to say they will switch toothpaste or banks because the CEO pleased or offended them. It’s quite another to actually follow through and change long held shopping habits or resist a sale. Some shopping habits are stickier than others, too.

As we know from the 2016 U.S. presidential election, even voting outcomes – a one-time action – can differ widely from advanced polling. Not everyone who says they are going to vote actually does, just as not everyone who says they’ll change brands does. To truly understand the impact of CEO activism on business outcomes, more data is needed. Certainly Nike results over the next few quarters and the rise in its stock price may hint at the answer, but it’s the long game that really matters.

Here’s the Larcker and Tayan paper.

Prop C and the CEO

I wonder how Marc Benioff is feeling this morning. Leading up to the  U.S. mid-term elections, Benioff, CEO of San Francisco-based Salesforce led a spirited campaign for Prop C, which will see Salesforce pay about $10 million a year in additional taxes to support homeless solutions.

Benioff has been the poster child for CEO activism in the past year, taking on politicians in Indiana and Georgia in defence of LGBTQ rights, confronting fellow CEOs in public debates, such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey about Prop C, and alternatively providing air cover for other CEOs to speak up in Indiana and Georgia without sticking their heads too much above water.

With this latest win, what’s on Benioff’s calendar today? He is, after all, the founder, chairman and co-CEO of a publicly traded company. Would love to see an analyses of how much of Benioff’s reputation is embedded in Salesforce’s stock price. At midday today, Salesforce shares were up 5.8% while the S&P was up 1.29%. Over the year to date, Salesforce shares have climbed 27%, versus 1.6% for the S&P. While I’m sure there are board members who are just hoping Benioff is in the office today, they should be doing the math on the halo effect that he’s bringing the company, in its share price and sales by such aggressive CEO activism and reputation building.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén