Stakeholde­rs Shareholde­rs


sent New York workers home in March, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg has convened a virtual war council at 8 a.m. daily. “The cadence of decision making is virtually unheard of,” says Vestberg, who estimates that at least twice a day, he has to make a call that he’ll be judged against five years from now. From the beginning, his 10-person team decided to address

every issue through a four-part prism with a specific hierarchy: employees, then customers, then society, and then, last and least, shareholde­rs.

“This time around, you have to have your compass clear,” he says.

So what does stakeholde­r capitalism look like at Verizon? Of his 145,000 employees, Vestberg laid exactly none off. Those in the field have gotten hazard-pay bumps; anyone in the company who contracts the virus gets 26 weeks of paid sick leave. The 120,000 staffers working from home, many hired for tasks that currently don’t exist, are dispatched to help on company-wide projects or Verizon’s volunteer efforts. The goal is more than a paycheck—it’s designed, at a challengin­g time, to provide purpose.

Vestberg treats his employees the way an elected official treats his constituen­ts. He polls them every two weeks to gauge his performanc­e and determine the issues he needs to focus on. And he’s transparen­t, holding the corporate version of Andrew Cuomo’s press briefing every day at noon. “We have nothing to hide, what we’re doing, our processes,” he says. He quickly expanded his audience beyond just his workers, airing his “briefing” live on Twitter so anyone—customers, vendors, Wall Street analysts—could jump in. More than 50,000 typically do.

As for its customers, Verizon has pledged not to end any contracts right now for those who can’t pay. It’s the right thing to do at a time when personal connectivi­ty is as essential as electricit­y. And it’s the smart thing to do for a company traditiona­lly valued by some multiple of customers. “If you cut them off, they never come back,” Vestberg says. For society, Verizon has provided every high school student in America with a New York Times subscripti­on, handles connectivi­ty and devices for kids at 350 schools and hosts free streaming “Pay It Forward” concerts every week, with performanc­es from the likes of Billie Eilish and Chance the Rapper.

The shareholde­rs? Wall Street seems to have accepted its place in Verizon’s pecking order. “So far, no one has pushed back,” Vestberg says. It should assuage the analyst crowd that on Forbes’ first-ever Top 25 Corporate Responders list (see page 58), which leverages data generated by Just Capital across 22 different criteria of the moment, from customer protection to emergency dependent care, Verizon took first place.

Of course, it’s easier for a high-margin, technology-driven company like Verizon to do the right thing. But low-margin retailers like Dollar General, Walmart and Target also made the Corporate Responders list. Target, the runner-up to Verizon, gave its 300,000-plus front-line workers a $2 per hour raise; added paid sick leave,

so employees don’t feel compelled to turn up at work with symptoms; provides backup child and elderly care; and expanded a fund to help workers with financial hardships.

If that sounds like a lot of employee focus right now, so be it. That’s what Americans want. As part of the Forbes Just 100 list, Forbes’ research partner, Just Capital, has surveyed more than 100,000 Americans about how they define a good corporate citizen. The overwhelmi­ng answer, every time: how they pay and treat their employees.

In this new Greater Capitalism, treating employees well doesn’t mean a conflict with business necessitie­s. It just means giving them proper respect. A few weeks ago, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky did something historic: He laid off nearly 1,900 employees, or about 25% of his workforce—and was applauded for it. Yes, the packages were generous: a minimum of 14 weeks’ severance, accelerate­d equity vesting, an Apple laptop and 12 months of paid-for health care. But the key for Chesky: compassion. He explained why he felt compelled to make such cuts, and then treated his ex-colleagues like friends rather than corporate detritus. Instead of recruiting, Chesky redeployed his human resources department to place laid-off workers and created a public alumni directory to showcase them. “I have endeavored to make principled, versus business, decisions,” Chesky tells Forbes. “Business decisions maximize outcomes, whereas principled decisions are made regardless of the outcome.”

A similarly principled citizen’s mindset drives Albert Bourla, arguably the most important CEO in America right now (see story, page 64). The Pfizer chief has pledged to have a vaccine ready for widespread distributi­on to vulnerable population­s this year, defying the convention­al 18-month projection­s.

Bourla risks two things. First, $1 billion on a product that’s surely a long shot for any single effort. “Speed was of paramount importance—and it had nothing to do with return on investment or how much it would cost, because it all sounded like a rounding error,” Bourla says. “What is important is a solution for a vaccine.”

Second, he risks some face, since he’s more likely overpromis­ing and under-delivering than vice-versa. “Our contributi­ons to how we solve this crisis should drive all decisions,” he says with a shrug. He adds: “It is very important to have open communicat­ion right now in real time for everyone . . . . Someone else making a vaccine maybe will learn something from us.”

Crises can go two ways: They can sow division or spur magnanimit­y. The Greece-born Bourla clearly aims for the latter. Pfizer’s vaccine moon

shot is a collaborat­ion with BioNTech, run by Uğur Şahin, a Turk. While their native countries famously despise each other, the CEOs have promised they’ll share raki together once the vaccine is developed. “There is only one enemy,” Bourla says. “The virus and time.”

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