The Luxury of Long Term Thinking

In the early nineteenth century, around 4,000 Quaker families ran 74 Quaker British banks and more than 200 Quaker companies. As Deborah Cadbury writes in her book Chocolate Wars:

“For the Quaker capitalists of the nineteenth century, the idea that wealth-creation was for personal gain only would have been offensive. Wealth creation was for the benefit of the workers, the local community, and society at large as well as the entrepreneurs themselves.”

To hear Ms. Cadbury tell it, those ideals died in 2009 with the takeover of Cadbury by the American food giant, Kraft. It was then that the business became all about shareholder returns. In other words, the bean counters (and for those of you thinking it, I’m not going to go to the obvious cocoa bean pun), won.

When people ask what we focus on, my typical answer is “small business.” The U.S. government defines a “small business” as a company or concern with fewer than 500 employees. I think that’s a good definition, and it may reflect what we do, but it does not tell the story of what we like to do.

We work with successful businesses with soul. By that I mean our ideal client is large enough to be successful and sustainable – even in tough economic times – but small enough to retain and echo the core values of its founders. In other words, our ideal client not only began its business for a reason, but still remembers it. For our ideal client, the bean counters are valued but they do not serve as the voice of the company.

Shareholders are typically interested in short-term gains. Those thick reports you see from publicly traded companies are really devoted to answering the single question: “What have you done for me lately?” The elevation of the immediate at the expense of the medium-to-long-term has had tremendous repercussions for our economy in general and for individual companies much too small to worry about SEC compliance.

To me, short term thinking, the demise of an independent Cadbury, and the ascension of Apple as a brand that put design and culture above returns are woven of the same thread. In absorbing this lesson, the question must then be asked of CEO’s and management teams: “in addition to balance sheets and financial dashboards, what have you done to preserve the company’s real eternal flame…lately?”

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