Car­son: Mix­ing pol­i­tics and busi­ness

Costco pays a price for get­ting too close to Obama

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Ben S. Car­son Ben S. Car­son is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of neu­ro­surgery at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity and au­thor of the new book “One Na­tion: What We Can All Do To Save Amer­ica’s Fu­ture” (Sen­tinel).

When I was a small child, one of the most dra­matic and ef­fec­tive busi­ness boy­cotts in the his­tory of Amer­ica oc­curred. This, of course, was the Mont­gomery bus boy­cott. By re­fus­ing to ride the bus, blacks who were be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against were able to ter­mi­nate many dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices not only in Alabama, but through­out the South. The white-owned busi­nesses were clearly be­ing un­fair, and the pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tem was no bet­ter. The ac­tions taken were most ap­pro­pri­ate and, in many cases, quite heroic.

The power of the purse, par­tic­u­larly in a cap­i­tal­is­tic so­ci­ety, is mighty, and busi­ness boy­cotts are a po­tent tool in the hands of the masses to en­force eco­nomic and so­cial fair­ness. Through the use of the bal­lot and the wal­let, we the peo­ple have life or death power over vir­tu­ally ev­ery as­pect of our na­tion.

As­tute busi­ness peo­ple gen­er­ally do not make their po­lit­i­cal views widely known, be­cause they re­al­ize that about half of their cus­tomers agree with them and half of them do not. There cer­tainly is no need to un­nec­es­sar­ily cre­ate an­i­mos­ity, es­pe­cially when you are try­ing to sell prod­ucts. In the case of Costco, a com­pany highly re­spected for very wise busi­ness prac­tices, Jim Sine­gal, the co-founder and CEO un­til re­cently, has made no se­cret of his pro­found ad­mi­ra­tion for Pres­i­dent Obama and his poli­cies.

For the sake of dis­clo­sure, be­fore I go fur­ther, I should re­veal that I have been a mem­ber of the Costco Board of Di­rec­tors for 15 years. There are peo­ple on the board of sev­eral po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions, and we are all friendly and work well to­gether be­cause pol­i­tics plays no role in busi­ness de­ci­sions. In the years that I have had the priv­i­lege of serv­ing on the Costco board, I have never wit­nessed a sin­gle in­ci­dent where pol­i­tics in­flu­enced a busi­ness de­ci­sion. Not only would that be in­cred­i­bly un­wise, since both cus­tomers and staff are heav­ily rep­re­sented on both sides of the po­lit­i­cal aisle, but it would lead to mass res­ig­na­tions and mem­ber­ship can­cel­la­tions, in­clud­ing yours truly.

Be­cause of Mr. Sine­gal’s very pub­lic sup­port of Mr. Obama, the re­cent with­drawal of the book “Amer­ica: Imag­ine a World With­out Her” by Di­nesh D’Souza from Costco ware­houses na­tion­wide, just be­fore the re­lease of the movie by the same ti­tle, was widely in­ter­preted as a po­lit­i­cal move, since the movie is very crit­i­cal of the pres­i­dent. I spoke to the cur­rent CEO of Costco, Craig Je­linek, who was so ab­sorbed in the busi­ness of the com­pany that he was un­aware of the movie prior to the re­sul­tant back­lash. He read­ily ad­mit­ted that those re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing the very lim­ited book space in Costco ware­houses should have been aware of the im­mi­nent re­lease of the movie and re­tained the book in an­tic­i­pa­tion of brisk stim­u­la­tion of book sales, which had been very slug­gish.

Costco, which had pre­vi­ously been ev­ery­body’s fa­vorite place, suf­fered a ma­jor black eye, not be­cause of in­ap­pro­pri­ate in­jec­tion of pol­i­tics into the busi­ness world, but rather ow­ing to un­char­ac­ter­is­tic lack of at­ten­tion to what was go­ing on in a very small seg­ment of the sales port­fo­lio. Through my bud­get-man­age­ment ex­pe­ri­ences as a divi­sion direc­tor at Johns Hop­kins for many years, and through many tough fi­nan­cial ex­pe­ri­ences as the pres­i­dent and co-founder of the Car­son Schol­ars Fund, which is ac­tive in all 50 states, I gained enor­mous knowl­edge of busi­ness prac­tices, but that pales in sig­nif­i­cance to what I have learned as a board mem­ber of both Costco and the Kel­logg Co. dur­ing the past 17 years. Man­ag­ing and grow­ing large multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions re­quires wis­dom and ex­pe­ri­ence, and I have en­joyed the op­por­tu­nity to work with and learn from both po­lit­i­cally lib­eral and con­ser­va­tive busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives. I can hon­estly say that wise busi­ness prac­tices tran­scend po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy, and those who in­ten­tion­ally in­ject their pol­i­tics into their busi­ness do so at their own peril. Their ac­tions will be in­ter­preted, rightly or wrongly, based on their po­lit­i­cal views. In the case of Costco and the D’Souza book, lack of aware­ness was in­ter­preted by many con­ser­va­tive cus­tomers as po­lit­i­cal mis­con­duct be­cause of the views of Mr. Sine­gal, who is no longer the CEO. Although he and I dif­fer po­lit­i­cally, he con­tin­ues to be a huge fi­nan­cial sup­porter of the Car­son Schol­ars Fund and many other ed­u­ca­tional en­deav­ors. When he was CEO, he could not sleep at night if some­one else of­fered a bet­ter value on a prod­uct. He cared deeply about how em­ploy­ees were treated, and he re­fused to ac­cept a salary com­pa­ra­ble to other CEOs in the in­dus­try. Also, he has noth­ing to do with Costco book sales, nor would he wish to at this point. We have much com­mon ground and are friends, even though we of­ten dis­cuss po­lit­i­cal is­sues.

There is no need for po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences to pre­cip­i­tate hos­til­ity in per­sonal re­la­tion­ships. We can build a strong, pros­per­ous na­tion to­gether if we are will­ing to talk and use our col­lec­tive strengths to ac­com­plish com­mon goals. We must main­tain open chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and, as a so­ci­ety, we must learn to vote wisely with the bal­lot and the wal­let.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GREG GROESCH/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

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