I just finished reading Bill Gate’s article in Time this week, “Creative Capitalism”, which explores ways that companies and consumers can work to improve the plight of disease and poverty in the world. An excellent article in itself and I am looking forward to seeing the work Bill Gates does now in his second, and arguably more important, career as a philanthropist. Of course this second “career” would not be possible without first creating the wealth to make it possible so I give him full credit for his past success.
The reason for this post has less to do with the main article but rather with a sidebar. There were several quotes from prominent capitalists throughout history and the points they made regarding the roles of the company/corporation. Surprisingly many did not place the return on investment as the number one concern. To the outrage of his investors, a cotton mill owner provided medical care for his workers and did not employ children under 10 years of age. Henry Ford paid his workers twice the going rate and believed that workers should be able to afford the products they built. Dave Packard of HP stated that the corporation does not exist solely to make money but rather to build something collectively that could not be accomplished separately, in his words “they make a contribution to society.”
I have read many times that “The Walt Disney Company” has a responsibility foremost to the shareholders of the company rather than to it’s customers (or fans as the case may be). If that is true at least we can take comfort in the fact that in the entertainment industry you must meet some level of expectation of your customer or they will no longer consume your product. Entertainment must evolve to continue to entertain or it will soon become boring. So in that sense Disney does have a vested interest in providing quality entertainment or those quaterly returns will dry up. In an interesting twist the very threats to the corporation profits often improve the customer’s experience. A competitor building a shiny new theme park nearby could result in new attractions at your favorite Disney park or a struggling economy might produce incentives like free dining that are never available during boom times.
My question for today though relates to the impact that an individual, usually the founder of the company, has on the “purpose” of the company. The “Creative Capitalists” in the article were individuals that made a difference and strove to provide more than just a return on investment. In a similar, although perhaps less altruistic, manner Walt Disney pushed the company to the brink of disaster over and over again in an effort to accomplish his vision at the expense of the corporation. In the absence of this powerful will does the corporation then move into a caretaker role where it is impossible to justify the very risks that may need to be taken to continue the success provided by the founder’s vision?
Two thoughts come to my mind. Would Walt Disney World, or more specifically Epcot, as envisioned by Walt Disney have finally been the risk that was a failure? And more important for the future, is it possible for someone to revive the “founder” role and have a strong enough vision and will to make the shareholders believers and take the risks required to accomplish the extraordinary?