At the recent Apple shareholders meeting, Tim Cook, the company’s CEO, popped his cork during the question and answer session. A representative of an organization that owns Apple stock and is apparently skeptical of Apple’s sustainability programs, asked Cook to commit to such programs only if they are good for Apple’s bottom line.
Something about the question or perhaps the questioner got under the CEO’s skin. Certainly he wouldn’t be the first corporate executive to find questions from shareholders annoying. Rather than hold his temper and finesse the question, Cook asserted that in some cases he does not “consider the bloody ROI [return on investment].” He then told his interlocutor that “if you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.”
Advising shareholders to sell a stock at a time when the stock is already widely considered undervalued was probably not the best of responses. Maybe Cook had no choice given that his most famous board member, Al Gore, was sitting on stage behind him.
Still, the notion that a CEO can claim to make decisions arguably not in the financial interest of shareholders and that such decisions should not be subject to questioning by those shareholders seems odd. It is an illustration of a much larger public perception that corporations are or should be vehicles for social change rather than merely organizations to create wealth. This idea is appealing only insofar as one agrees with the “non-ROI” decisions of the CEO. That may not always be the case at all companies.
It would probably be best for CEOs to focus on generating shareholder value in a manner consistent with our laws and ethics. Doing so may indeed include supporting sustainability programs as part of building that value.
But looking to CEOs to use at their discretion shareholder money to effect social and political changes unrelated to the bottom line is a very bad idea. That it is a bad idea whose time may have come is, at bottom, a commentary on the dysfunction of our political system where social and political change should, ideally, be debated but so often is not.