Today's Reading

I loved accompanying my mother as she delivered egg sandwiches to Dad for his lunch. As a toddler, I wandered across the linoleum floors, mesmerized by bright jars of Brylcreem and boxes of candy, fat bags of Epsom salts and bottles of boric acid. When I was old enough, I delivered Dad's lunch myself and sat and watched for hours while he mixed prescriptions, decanted cough medicine into smaller bottles, and wrote the details of each transaction by hand in one of his large ledgers. I was born too late to remember the days when the pharmacy had a soda fountain, but my older brother, Michael, assures me it once did. It also had a pay phone and a resident bookie who ran his business from the booth. The window displays enticed customers with colorful rows of lipsticks and elegant glass bottles. The ads that plastered the walls announced treatments for everything from everyday exhaustion to intractable hiccups to belligerent senior citizens. But as I look back now, I realize that it wasn't any of those products or promises that kept the pharmacy filled with people—talking, laughing, socializing, in no hurry to resume the business of the day. They may have come for the items on their shopping lists—for pills, powders, or potions—but they stayed for the company.

A good company becomes a community. The word company means fellowship or companionship, and the best businesses treat their customers like honored guests (another fitting meaning of the term company). Many people look back nostalgically to businesses like my uncle Sam's and bemoan the loss of those mom-and-pop shops and the sense of community they fostered. They blame the growth of market capitalism, the influx of big-box stores, and the shift to online retail for driving out small businesses and leaving neighborhoods without those hubs of connection, familiarity, and support. But I don't think it has to be that way. My own path took me from helping out in the family pharmacy to cofounding the largest home improvement retailer on the planet, The Home Depot. By the time I left, in 2001, we employed more than 250,000 people (it's now 400,000). And you know what? Every one of those stores felt as much like a community as that little pharmacy on the corner in Queens. It's not size that makes the difference; it's attitude. If customers feel as though they're interacting with human beings who care, rather than with an institution, it doesn't matter how big the company as a whole might be. Large does not have to mean impersonal. If a business truly sees itself as a community—both for its customers and for the people who work there—it will infuse its everyday activities with a spirit of hospitality.

It's understandable that people might balk at hearing business described in such noble terms. We live in an era when confidence in institutions has plummeted, with close to half the population saying they distrust businesses, according to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer. From the Enron collapse at the turn of the millennium, to the 2008 financial crisis, to today's tech giant data scandals, corporate misconduct looms larger than ever in the public awareness. Many have come to the conclusion that the profit motive inherently corrupts and that capitalism itself is a flawed system based on greed and competition. Unfortunately, such sentiments find plenty of backup in the daily news cycle. If you want to find corporate bad actors, you don't have to look far. The stories we hear less frequently are those in which businesses strive to succeed while also making a positive difference in the world.

Those stories do exist, however, and we need to hear more of them. Businesses can and should do great things. They can be part of the solution, not the problem. In fact, because corporations wield so much power and influence in our society, they have an unmatched opportunity to do good, for the people who work in them and for the communities in which they do business. I'm not just talking about adding a few benefits and engaging in a little philanthropy on the side; I'm suggesting that doing good becomes an integral part of business activities. When we leverage our business interests for the greater good of our people's lives and our community's well-being while at the same time increasing profit, business and philanthropy become inseparable.

I think of it as lifting both sides of the barbell. You can't lift, squat, and overhead press a great weight from just one side, either from under the plates of capitalism or from under the plates of social responsibility. You have to get your entire body centered under that bar to propel it skyward, balancing the reality of the need for profitability with the challenges facing communities, our nation, and the world.

This is the essence of what I call "good capitalism," which has also been called "conscious capitalism," "conscious business," or "the triple bottom line" (people, planet, profits). It's an approach to business that elevates the interests of all stakeholders—from shareholders to vendors to customers to associates to community members to the local environment. Whatever name we give it, there's no question in my mind that this approach to business represents a much-needed paradigm shift from conventional thinking. And it's catching on. In the summer of 2019, Business Roundtable released a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which was signed by 181 CEOs, including the leaders of dozens of major national and international companies. The essence of their statement was that businesses are no longer primarily responsible to shareholders; they are responsible to all stakeholders, including customers, associates, communities, suppliers, and the environment as well. As my good friend Jamie Dimon, chairman of Business Roundtable and chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., puts it, "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."
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