Business Monday: When big companies take big stands
Days after the outbreak of racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, Wal-Mart chief executive Doug McMillon knew the risks involved with the mega-retailer taking a stand against President Donald Trump’s initial reaction to the events.
“The phones started ringing from the media, ‘What are you going to do?’” he said. “So the clock starts ticking, the news cycle is going — do you respond, or do you not respond?”
President Trump didn’t outright condemn the white nationalists who incited the violence; instead Trump admonished “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” while acknowledging “very fine people on both sides.”
Recalling the incident at a panel discussion last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, McMillon, the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company’s fifth CEO, said he thought Trump’s initial response “wasn’t handled well.”
So he addressed it with a statement posted on Wal-Mart’s website, which read in part: “As we watched the events and the response from President Trump over the weekend, we too felt that he missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists.”
An increasing number of large companies, big and small, are taking political, environmental and religious stances, from the Denver baker’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding, to Aspen Skiing Co.’s “Aspen Way” campaign promoting love, unity, commitment and respect. Skico officials have said the stance, made in response to President Trump’s firebrand social conservatism, was mostly well-received.
“We’ve also gotten some feedback saying, ‘Hey, don’t bring politics into skiing,’” Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said at an Aspen City Council work session last year. “I think our comment is we’re saying we’re not bringing politics into skiing. We’re trying to stand up for our values and our business interests.”
While some might call these stances corporate activism, PayPal CEO Daniel Schulman and Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario, at a separate Ideas Festival discussion, said the public positions are entrenched in company values.
In April 2016, the San Jose, California-based financial services firm, a supporter of LGBT rights, bailed on its plans to build a 400-employee global operations center in North Carolina following the state’s decision to pass the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, or House Bill 2, which precluded people from using the bathroom based on their gender identity as opposed to the gender specified on their birth certificate.
“This really went against all the values of PayPal,” Schulman, while sitting alongside Wal-Mart’s McMillon, told moderator Rebecca Blumenstein of The New York Times. “I was in my office when I happened to see the governor (of North Carolina) on my computer (talking about the new legislation). I walked down the hall to the head of corporate affairs and said, ‘I want us out of North Carolina within a week.’”
He added: “We should not have any discrimination of any kind for any reason in our country, plain and simple.”
Patagonia, which has headquarters in Ventura, Califoria, has a 30-year history of involvement in environmental causes, Marcario said, starting with its founder, Yvon Chouinard.
“It’s not so much activism as responsibility,” Marcario told the crowd that filled the ballroom at the Hotel Jerome. “It’s about responsible corporate citizenry.”
Wal-Mart and PayPal are publicly traded companies. Patagonia — which sued the president over his reduction of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments — is privately held.
Yet, while Patagonia doesn’t have to walk the line of appeasing stockholders, the House Natural Resources Committee blasted the company in December upon its announcement that it would sue the Trump administration on claims it was “stealing” the public’s land.
The House Committee tweeted a message mocking Patagonia’s claims, calling the outdoor apparel company a “corporate giant hijacking our public lands debate to sell more products to wealthy elitist urban dwellers from New York to San Francisco.”
Patagonia, however, appears to be undeterred.
“It hasn’t hurt our business at all,” Marcario said. “We’re going to have our best year ever because of this.”