Shift from shareholder value to stakeholder-focused model for top US firms

Aug 23, 2019
Business Roundtable reveals corporations to drop idea they function to serve shareholders only

In a major corporate shift, shareholder value is no longer the main objective of the US’ top company CEOs, according to the Business Roundtable, which instead emphasizes the ‘purpose of a corporation’ and a stakeholder-focused model.

The influential body – a group of chief executive officers from major US corporations – has stressed the idea of a corporation dropping the age-old notion that corporations function first and foremost to serve their shareholders and maximize profits.

Rather, the focus should be on investing in employees, delivering value to customers, dealing ethically with suppliers and supporting outside communities as the vanguard of American business, according to a Business Roundtable statement.

‘While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders,’ reads the statement, signed by 181 CEOs. ‘We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.’

Gary LaBranche, president and CEO of NIRI, tells IR Magazine that this is part of a wider trend: ‘The redefinition of purpose from shareholder-focused to stakeholder-focused is not new to NIRI members. For example, a 2014 IR Update article by the late Professor Lynn Stout urges a more inclusive way of thinking about corporate purpose.’ 

NIRI has also addressed this concept at many venues, including the senior roundtable annual meeting and the NIRI Annual Conference, adds LaBranche. This trend was further seen in the NIRI policy statement on ESG disclosure, released in January this year. 

Analyzing the meaning of this change in more detail, LaBranche adds: ‘The statement is a revolutionary break with the Business Roundtable’s previous position that the purpose of the corporation is to create value for shareholders, which was a long-held position championed by Milton Friedman.

‘The challenge is that Friedman’s thought leadership helped to inspire the legal and regulatory regime that places wealth creation for shareholders as the ‘prime directive’ for corporate executives.

‘Thus, commentators like Mike Allen of Axios are quick to point out that some shareholders may actually use the new statement to accuse CEOs of worrying about things beyond increasing the value of their shares, which, Allen reminds us, is the CEOs’ fiduciary responsibility.

‘So while the new Business Roundtable statement reflects a much-needed rebalancing and modernization that speaks to the comprehensive responsibilities of corporate citizens, we can expect that some shareholders will push back on this more inclusive view of who should benefit from corporate efforts and the capital that makes it happen. The new statement may not mark the dawn of a new day, but it perhaps signals the twilight of the Friedman era.’

In a similarly reflective way, Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co and chairman of the Business Roundtable, says: ‘The American dream is alive, but fraying. Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term. These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans.’

Along with Dimon’s, the Business Roundtable statement received signatures from other top chiefs of major US companies, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg and General Motors CEO Mary Barra.

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