The Bullog – October 2021

No smoke without ire

Shareholder primacy is dead.

Long live shareholder value primacy. 

The past few years have seen a very welcome growth in the number of corporates claiming to have a core purpose that is beyond simply lining the pockets of their shareholders or indeed, their senior executive teams. The latter’s remuneration is of course, massively dependent on the firm’s share price as part of so called “long-term incentive plans”. Mission statements and lofty goals abound. These claim that business is going to change the world through its core business and not as the fig leaf of CSR that attracted so much criticism in the past. We even heard from the US Business Roundtable back in April 2019 that they’d made the landmark decision to end shareholder primacy. Cynics raised a collective eyebrow. 

I’ve never seen myself as an apologist for big business, but I did feel that we were starting to turn a corner – that a combination of societal expectation and changing employee aspirations might at last mean that the penny had finally dropped. Companies could genuinely claim that they were balancing profit with purpose.

The recent Philip Morris International (PMI) takeover of health company Ventura caused my heart to sink and made me question whether I’d been wrong all along.  I’m sure many of you feel the same.

In case you missed it, here’s the story in a nutshell. Ventura is a health company that manufactures inhalers and similar devises that are focused on enhancing and prolonging life. Philip Morris, of Marlboro Man fame, makes ciggies which are proven to dramatically shorten life. The howls of protests from NGOs and health authorities point out the inherent conflict of interest and perverse incentives this takeover causes. 

This appears to have fallen on deaf ears and Ventura’s shareholders decided to cash in on the huge premium PMI were willing to pay. Shame on them. Given the fact that the company is now likely to be shunned by the global health community and shut out of critical medical research contracts and sponsorship deals, the economic logic of the deal may become far less appealing.

PMI claim that they have a vision of a smoke free future and should be allowed to have an acquisition led transition towards this lofty goal. However, the fact that 75% of their revenues still come from selling cigarettes, often to youth in weak states – cynically called “growth markets”, then I don’t think they’re in too much of a hurry to make the shift.

The biggest disappointment I have is the apparent deafening silence from another critically important stakeholder – Ventura’s employees. Less than a year ago I wrote about the latent potential of employee activism – collective action by often a small group of employees to influence business strategy from the bottom up. Remember the Google strikes ? Or Microsoft employees managing to terminate a contract with the US government over its treatment of the kids of Mexican immigrants on the southern border

So please speak up employees of Ventura!

PMI cannot make this acquisition work without your tacit support. How do you feel about the fact that having joined a healthcare company, you woke up one morning to discover your salary is now paid by a cigarette company? Individually you may feel powerless to act – collectively you are not. Far from it. 

For the long term viability of the company and therefore your own self interest, it might be time to flex your muscles and make your voices heard. 

Back on Bute

The huge news for me personally and for Craigberoch was the fact that we successfully ran, not one, but two in-person events on Bute in September. 

Vicky and Amelia from the Craigberoch Cast co-hosted the Decelerator Lab over a long weekend. The Mount Stuart Trust’s Blackwood Centre provided an airy and spacious setting for the diverse group of participants to step off the hamster wheel and step into a very different experience involving art, improv, music and storytelling. The stunning grounds with its raw nature and beautiful beaches allowed a lot of activities to take place outdoors. A major highlight for many was the Saturday night barbecue and bonfire on the Craigberoch land on a perfect starry night, complete with the local Ceilidh band. Fabulous.

We’ve got a great crowd already signed up for the next session on 8-12 November, but still have a few places left if you’re interested. Check out the brochure and website here.

We also ran our first ever co-working event called “BE on Bute” which a smaller number of participants stayed on for. They were able to continue their day jobs while working from the fabulous Blackwood Centre, with optional yoga and walks in nature every day. Outside of the core working hours, there were also afternoon classes in art and wood work that helped to get the creative juices flowing.   One acecdote I liked was when the team arrived late from their hotel one morning, claiming they’d been mesmerised watching a pod of dolphins playing in the sea nearby. Not a bad excuse for being late!

Now that you can work from anywhere, why not “BE on Bute”. We’ll be running our next cohort on the week of 1-5 November.  Register interest here.

Best of the rest……

I mentioned in the last Bullog that I’d be facilitating a session on intrapreneurship at the World Economic Forum’s virtual Sustainable Development Impact Summit on 20th September.  The panellists were very senior Execs from AB Inbev, Coca Cola, EY and a seasoned intrapreneur who ran Novartis’s social business group but is now with Gilead Sciences.  It was open to the public and for those who are interested but missed it, you can watch the replay here

On the personal front…….

I was able to take a few days out during early September and travel around the amazing west coast of Scotland with a friend and Penny the Dog, who celebrated her 3rd Birthday on 14th September.  The landscape is simply stunning and the trend towards “staycations” meant that the roads were busy with a combo of camper vans and numerous cyclists.

On a less happy note, September 8th saw the passing of my dear “Uncle” Bert or Robert “Big Bert” Alexander as he was affectionately known in the local community. Bert was not my real uncle, but the closest thing I’ve ever had to one and was my dad’s best pal. He had always been a hugely positive influence and mentor throughout my life and was a pillar of the local community. Bert supported so many good causes on the island and played a pivotal role in helping to welcome and integrate a substantial number of Syrian refugees who moved to the island in recent years. One particular friendship was struck up with Bashar Helmi who went on to open a now thriving little Syrian Patisserie on the Rothesay Seafront.

I remember visiting Bert for a whisky one Christmas Eve a few years ago when he was already quite badly diminished by dementia (which ultimately meant he had to spend the last year of his life in a local care home). The doorbell rang and there was Bashar’s son Momen, holding an enormous tray of Syrian cakes and sweets in beautiful cellophane gift wrap.  This was a “token of appreciation from the Syrian community” for all the support Bert had given them. It was therefore particularly touching to see Bashar join the memorial service in the church.

The service was a fitting send off to a very great man – a celebration of a life well lived in noble and humble service to a community which he loved. Big Bert Alexander, RIP 

OK, that’s more than enough for now folks. Until next month,


* The Bullog  = Bulloch + Blog

Make sense?  Not bulldog, nor is it bulls**t although I’ll let you be the judge of that! It’s a brief synopsis on recent articles, events and opinions from my world and the things that have caught my attention over the past few weeks.  If it’s not for you then feel free to unsubscribe below.