By Jyoti Pandey
Senior Consultant, Integrity Leadership Partners, LLC
Opened my mail this morning and peered through an email from a recruiter that approached with an interesting job requisition. The company, area of responsibility, and the sphere of influence seemed appealing. I was just stuck at one point – strong focus on bottom line.
Bottom line describes how efficient a company is with its spending and operating costs and how effectively it has been controlling total costs. While it is true that the whole purpose of being in business and the only way to sustain it is to create a strong bottom line and that is also required from the standpoint of fulfilling the stakeholder responsibility. But isn’t this overemphasis on the bottom line very narrowly focused so far assessing the overall health of the company? Should corporate reporting not focus toward how a company is making its money, not just how much it is making? Accounting has the potential to see things differently, unfortunately the single point focus on the bottom line that does not take in to account the non-financial measures does not allow accountants an opportunity to stretch the boundaries and that ultimately keeps them narrowly focused. The metrics that we arrive at as a result of the calculations is not unworthy, that however, does not give us the perspective to measure things in a meaningful light. Chances are, unless the companies shift their focus and generate numbers not merely for the Wall Street, we will not see much of a change.
Gene Rogers, the founder and CEO of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board gives an in-depth analysis here of international efforts for this disclosure. In Europe, sustainability reporting — the disclosure of non-financial information into financial reports — has gained strong momentum and is becoming routine. In 2014, the E.U. adopted an amendment to its general accounting directives, requiring that certain large companies (estimated 6000) include reporting of “sustainability” factors—such as environmental aspects, social and employee-related matters, and respect for human rights, anti-corruption and bribery issues, and diversity on boards of directors— in their management reports.
United States passed a similar regulation more than eight decades ago. Internationally, where other countries are moving ahead with mandatory ESG disclosure at a more rapid pace, it has not been strictly enforced in the US. According to an annual publication covering the social and environmental shareholder resolutions filed each proxy season, 63% of all shareholder proposals filed relate to social and environmental issues, which suggests that companies are not disclosing sustainability information that investors deem material. The corporate performance could take a significant leap in a positive direction if US were to enforce its own disclosure regulation.
Peter Bakker (president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and former CEO of TNT N.V., now Post NL and TNT Express) recollects that during his time as CEO of TNT N.V. the company created a partnership with the UN World Food Program (WFP) — at that time, the world’s first between a for-profit and the UN agency. “A transport company like TNT is a typical beneficiary of globalization. At the same time we live in a world where every six seconds a child dies from hunger despite there being enough food in the world to prevent it.” He says. So TNT brought its logistics skills and committed its people’s time to help the WFP reach the victims of droughts, famine, and natural disaster. Their professional support made the WFP function better. The company also got returns on its investment as well as the employees of the company were proud of the company and eager to participate; the disaster areas provided some of the best training on how to solve complex dilemmas; and of course the reputation of the company improved tremendously. “But we weren’t capturing any of it in our financial reports. We were building social capital, but we didn’t have a way to tell our shareholders — or be held accountable to keep doing it. Similarly, you don’t have to be an energy company or pulp and paper producer to focus on those resources; all companies use water, energy, and paper. But few are held accountable.” Peter Bakker laments, sadly. When the SEC was formed in the 1930s, Congress empowered it to require the disclosure of material information. The definition of “material” remained limited to reporting only financial information however.
The story reminded me of another one with slightly different twist but centered around the same theme “measurement” that I had read in a book called, “How will you measure your life” By Clayton M Christensen (professor at Harvard Business School.) The narrative takes us through the success story of Dell that was mostly dependent on a Taiwanese component supplier called Asus. Dell had hit its stride in 1990s – using several key strategic initiatives.
- Making simple entry level computers at very low costs, moved up market later on.
- It made modular products, allowing its consumers to customize. Dell would then assemble and ship.
- It tried to use its capital efficiently wringing more and more sales and profits per dollar of its assets – something Wall Street applauded.
Interestingly, Dell was able to pull this off with the help of Asus. Later on Asus came up with more propositions for Dell to start outsourcing more and more of its key capabilities. In an effort to appease the Wall Street analysts on the company’s efficiency ratios, a common one being RONA, Return On Net Assets, (in manufacturing parlance calculated by income/net assets), Dell started outsourcing. Since it is harder to drive the numerator up, to maintain robust ratios driving the denominator down is easier. To cut the long story short, the process continued as Dell outsourced the management of its supply chain, and the design of its computers themselves. Dell essentially outsourced everything inside its personal computer business – everything except its brand. With high RONA and few assets left, Dell simply allows companies in Taiwan to put the name “Dell” on the machines. Merely focusing on the final outcome without closely monitoring the input that goes into the metric can create a potential competitor that can not only challenge the existence but may even throw the company out of the business.
Natura, a Brazilian cosmetics and fragrances company was among the first companies in the world to see integrated reporting (capturing financial as well as social and environmental information) as the best way to signal its management’s focus on environmental and social stewardship. Since 2002, Natura has significantly reduced its greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption, developed more environmentally friendly packaging, and provided training and education opportunities to about 560,000 consultants. Such initiatives have helped the company earn one of the top slots in 2011 by Forbes, as one of the top innovative companies in the world. From 2002 to 2011 the firm’s revenues grew by 463% and its net income by 3,722%, and the company had an average gross margin of 68%, compared with the industry average of 40%. In 2010, the company’s return on assets (24.7%) and return on equity (62.1%) also far surpassed industry averages. Source – Report Natura goes a step further in publishing a comprehensive report of its socio – environmental targets not met.
We manage what we measure, and right now the tools we use to measure the worth of a company are outdated. Real estate and equipment making up the big chunk of a company’s assets, maybe capitalized R&D or IP, but how much of a company’s true value, its ability to deliver value to customers and ability to make a profit doing so, is represented by the bottom line? What about the social responsibility of the companies? When the world is moving toward greater transparency and stakeholders are becoming conscious towards the efforts the companies are making for a positive social impact, companies need to shift their focus and assume greater accountability. In a world where businesses spend millions sponsoring a game for marketing efforts, a little thought on some social issues such as droughts, famine, and natural disasters would also add significant value to the reputation of the companies impacting their bottom line.
We need businesses to exhibit such consciences. And we sure do need ways to measure them in the corporate reporting, and that can only come with a shift in focus…
[clickToTweet tweet=”What We Measure May Deserve a Shift in Focus…” quote=”What We Measure May Deserve a Shift in Focus…” theme=”style3″]