The following is a conversation between Martin Whittaker, President and CEO of JUST Capital, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Have you ever wanted to know whether a company is socially responsible or not? If so, have you wondered where in the world to start looking for that information? There’s really no easy answer. But it has suddenly become a whole lot easier, thanks to a nonprofit organization called JUST Capital. And here to explain all of that to us this evening is Martin Whittaker, the President and CEO of JUST Capital.
Good evening, Martin, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Martin Whittaker: Good evening Denver. Thank you for having me.
Denver: JUST Capital, a fairly young organization, you were founded back in 2012; how did it get started? Who founded it? And what is the mission of the organization?
Martin: It was founded by a small group of people: Deepak Chopra, first among them; Paul Tudor Jones, who is a hedge fund manager. Well-known on Wall Street, also founded the Robin Hood Foundation; Arianna Huffington, Rinaldo Brutoco, Paul Scialla. There was a core group of people who believe that markets in America… capitalism really wasn’t serving the broader, best interest of most people. And so, if you believe in capitalism and you believe in free-market enterprise — that’s the system that we have, and that’s the system that we want to try and change.
So, the idea of using rankings and data to give people information on how the companies that they buy from, or work for, or are investing in; how those companies are doing on the things that you as an individual care most about… that that would change the way you behaved. And in doing so, what that would do is drive resources to the more JUST companies and promote more JUST behavior among companies. So, the big idea is really to try and use markets as a force for good.
Denver: We’ll get to these rankings. But one thing you did, which I thought was great, is that you did not assume you knew what was important to the American people on how a company should behave, but rather you surveyed some 72,000 people and asked them what they believed was important. And what was at the top of that list?
Martin: How a company treats its workers over the last three years. Now, we’ve had three years’ worth of polling. We go through great lengths to make sure we get a representative sample of respondents. Our polling partner is a group out of the University of Chicago called the National Opinion Research Center, NORC; very well-known organization. It’s really through their work we do focus groups around the country. We do online polling. We do telephone calling where people are not online. We try and get as representative a viewpoint as we can, and we’ve been at this now for three years.
It’s probably one of the most detailed surveys on how people think about companies, company behavior; what they like, what they don’t like. And every year, for the last three years, the relationship between a company and its workers has been at the top of the pile. And really what that means is: Do companies pay workers fairly? Do they pay a living wage? Do they provide good benefits? Do they provide good paid time off? How do they do on inclusion and diversity, treatment of women in the workplace? All of those things are really front and center right now.
Denver: And what were some of the other factors that the American people took under consideration?
Martin: We group them into seven major themes. Workers is number one; then, how a company treats customers; the products that a company makes; its environmental impact, its influence on jobs and job creation; how it supports local communities in the US and internationally, including supply chains and human rights issues; and then finally, making money. When you survey people, people know companies have to be profitable over the long term in order to survive and do all those other things. So, it’s not an either/ or. So those really are the seven buckets, and each one of them has a weight according to how America sees its importance.
The number one takeaway in our very first survey was that companies spend far too much time tending to the needs of the shareholders.
… the pendulum has just swung so far in favor of serving shareholder needs in the short term. It’s at the expense of everything else
Denver: So if American people believe that how a company treats their employees was of the utmost importance, what did they think that companies themselves had as their top priority?
Martin: Serving shareholders. The number one takeaway in our very first survey was that companies spend far too much time tending to the needs of the shareholders. Now, that’s the old way of thinking about… really the purpose of a company, any publicly traded company, is to maximize shareholder value. This goes back to the 1970s and the view really led by Milton Friedman, the famous economist, that “the business of business is business.”
So that’s a view that transcended Wall Street corporate boardrooms. And I think what founders of JUST Capital, certainly Paul, talks a lot about is this idea that there’s nothing wrong with that, but the pendulum has just swung so far in favor of serving shareholder needs in the short term. It’s at the expense of everything else. It’s at the expense of how a company pays its workforce, pollutes the environment, pays for the health impacts of its product. So, if you only focus on maximizing short-term shareholder value, it doesn’t end well for all of us. That’s really the idea.
Denver: So, as you set out to gather information on these companies because you needed that information to rank them, what sources did you tap?
Martin: We used hundreds of different data sources. Our job is not to be the individual authority on every individual piece of data. What we do is set out to find the best available data for all the things we’re trying to measure. So we work with, for example, on wages, a company out of San Francisco called Glassdoor. They provide us with a lot of wage data at the individual job level. We work with government data, a lot obviously. Companies report a lot to the SEC. So we go through all of that data with a fine-tooth comb.
We use third-party vendors who provide information on the health impacts of a company’s products; how a company is performing in supply chains on human rights issues. So, there’s lots of different data sources depending on the issue that we’re trying to measure. Our job really… part of our job is to make sure that that data is accurate, as up-to-date, and as reliable as we can. Because if we’re going to use them for our rankings to give to the public, obviously, we want to be able to stand behind that. So we spend a lot of time on the data.
Denver: You spend a lot of time. This is comprehensive and exhaustive in every sense of the word.
So, what industries, Martin, fared well on this social good index? And which ones were not so good and near the bottom?
Martin: If you look at the JUST 100, which is the top 100 companies according to our rankings, you get a smattering of every industry. So that’s the good news. It’s actually a very… you can be a chemicals company and still be a JUST company. As you get higher up the list, more represented are software and technology companies, and it’s not surprising when you think about it. These companies are very profitable. They pay their workers well. They tend to treat people better. They support local communities. They have a lower environmental footprint. They tend to do well across all of the seven drivers of justness, which is the way the model works. It’s very hard to be just good at one thing and be at the top. You have to be good at pretty much everything, and the converse is true. One problem, one major controversy or incident is not going to sink you. You have to be continually, sustainably bad across lots of things to be towards the bottom of the ranking.
Now, our universe, just so you know and your listeners know, are the 1000 largest publicly traded companies in America. That’s really who we’re focusing on. But the way JUST Capital works, the way we hope your listeners and consumers will use the rankings, is really on an as-needed basis. In other words, you can go on to a platform and look at any company in any industry… or any sets of companies and compare them on any issue that you particularly care about. So the insight that we had is that, obviously, people don’t care about everything all of the time. They care about some things some of the time. So we wanted to make it as customizable, as personal to you — the user — as possible.
I think about the platform as we have our list of JUST 100 in the overall rankings, but if you’re a customer of JUST Capital — and we’re a nonprofit so it’s all free — if you come on our site on your smartphone, and you want to know if Apple and Google are comparable on paid time off, you’ll be able to get the answer.
Denver: That’s fantastic. And it also probably makes sense to compare one company to another within an industry as opposed to across industries because it’s apples to apples.
Martin: Absolutely, and that’s actually how the companies see it. We have a good relationship, which may be surprising, but we have a good relationship with a lot of the companies because they like the idea that somebody out there is trying to be honest and unbiased about measuring their performance. So, they get pilloried in the press. Everyone is attacking them, and they see it as refreshing. “Okay, here’s this group. We don’t have an ax to grind. We don’t have any kind of a political bias. We’re simply trying to tell the truth, just the facts,” and they like that.
And so companies compare their performance within an industry as would an investor. For example, if you’re investing in the markets, you’re not really going to compare Exxon and Apple. They are two totally separate companies in separate industries. So I think that really the industry-by-industry comparisons are arguably more meaningful when you’re looking at it from a company standpoint.
Denver: Well, I’m sure they find it refreshing to run into somebody who doesn’t have an agenda because it seems that these days, everybody has an agenda.
So, the question on everyone’s mind, Martin, is: What companies landed at the top of these rankings?
Martin: So the number one company of the thousand companies we ranked is Intel. And at our launch recently, the CEO of Intel, Brian Krzanich — who’s been at Intel for 30-plus years — talked about the company’s culture, talked about how proud he was of continuing this tradition of Intel treating its workers well. And that’s really where they excel. The culture surveys, the analysis they do. They have a very–which wouldn’t surprise you being in the industry–they have a very engineered view of how to measure and manage the culture and the performance of the company on human capital. So that’s really where I would say they excel.
There are other companies who did well in the top. We liked AT&T. We liked NVIDIA. Microsoft did well. Of companies from other industries, Eastman Chemical did well. GM,I think, was our top performing car company. So we had it spread around quite a bit. Delta actually did well. As I said, it’s quite a diverse group by industry.
… the way you treat your customers, the way you invest in your workers, the way you support the communities where you operate — all that comes back to you and makes you a better business.
Denver: Let’s take a look at performance metrics. Are the performance metrics of this JUST 100, the 100 top-ranked companies better, worse, different than the full list?
Martin: You mean financial performance?
Martin: Yes, absolutely. So this is another thing that we believe and that we study. We believe that a company that does well on the things that we measure will do better in the markets. We believe that it makes for a better company. In fact, I haven’t met a CEO who said, “I really think that the way to build our company’s legacy is to maximize short-term profits.” Nobody says that and yet, the CEOs are forced to attend to that.
Denver: We’re down on Wall Street right now.
Martin: Exactly! So this idea that the way you treat your customers, the way you invest in your workers, the way you support the communities where you operate — all that comes back to you and makes you a better business. So that’s what we try to measure. If you look at the JUST 100, and you look back at the return on equity of those companies, it’s a full 8% higher. Actually, a diversified portfolio of JUST companies, 24% return in equity over a five-year period, versus 16% for the rest.
We have a live index now, and you can see that it’s been outperforming its benchmark by something like 250 basis points; 2.5% over the course of the last year. So, we definitely think that these companies do better in the markets over the long term and hopefully will serve shareholders and all the other stakeholders more effectively.
Denver: And a lot of other things, too. They pay more. They’re 3.8 times more charitable, and almost everything you take a look at, these companies are outperforming.
Martin: This is the myth. The myth is, if you’re going to be more responsible environmentally, if you’re going to pay your lowest workers more money, if you’re going to be more generous through your company’s foundation or charity, that it comes as a cost. It’s a tradeoff. It’s either/or; you can’t have both. That’s a myth.
And I think one of the things we’re trying to do, in addition to just providing information and getting it out there, is dispel this myth that it’s either/or. I mean, is that how you live your life? Either I’m good at this and I’m bad at this? Who lives like that? Nobody does. So why should companies be like that?
Denver: Doesn’t make any sense.
Is there any real evidence, Martin, that consumers are influenced, and their purchasing decisions are swayed by the level of social responsibility demonstrated by a corporation?
Martin: There’s a lot of information that supports that when you look at how younger generations — millennials, Gen Z — think about companies, their spending habits, what they look for, their desire to align their sense of purpose with their consumer habits. I would say it’s still, if I’m being really honest, I would say — well, not just JUST Capital, but anyone in this industry– we’re still really trying to figure out: where is that correlation most effective? What are the things that we can point to specifically? But it’s hard.
I was buying a gift for one of my kids recently. There are many things that I’m factoring in when I’m making that decision. It’s not all one thing. But if I knew that this product was made in the supply chain somewhere that has child labor, I wouldn’t buy it. I think most people wouldn’t buy it. But the truth is, you just don’t know. So, knowledge actually, I think, has been sort of insufficiently distributed on these things. People just don’t know, and if you don’t know, you can’t make the decision.
… we’re in a moment where companies know that they have to be better, and the world is watching.
Denver: Do you ever hear from companies — maybe the ones who didn’t fare too well from the rankings — taking issue with how they were evaluated?
Martin: We talk to companies all the time. We show them the data that we’re going to use to rank them, and this is privately so they have a chance. We’re not trying to shame anybody. We want to do this honestly. So we have a period of several months where we’re interacting with companies to show them. If they feel mistreated, or if there are data that we have wrong, or if there is information about them that we’re getting from others that is incorrect, then we will look at correcting it.
We don’t just simply immediately change things because the company doesn’t like it. Obviously, we have to be unbiased in that respect. But certainly, our job is to try and be as reliable with the data as we can. So we try to be very open, very transparent. If you go on to our website, you can see how we rank these companies, where we get the data, what our methodology is. We’re not hiding anything. So the companies often call us and say, “We disagree that we are this lowly ranked,” to put it mildly, and then we have a discussion. And having looked at our research and looked at our methodology, if they say, “No, we disagree,” then that’s fine. But, look, the other aspect of this is: these things are changing all the time. Companies are disclosing more data. They are improving their performance. They are taking a lot of these issues very seriously and much more seriously than I would say 10 years ago. I’ve been doing this a long time, but I would say now we’re in a moment where companies know that they have to be better, and the world is watching.
Denver: Absolutely. Transparency like we’ve never seen.
For JUST Capital to really optimize its impact, you have to become better and better and better known to the American people, which is always a challenge for a new nonprofit organization. How do you plan to raise a profile of the organization even further?
Martin: We have various things that we’re trying to do. Number one is: For the top performing companies, we award them a Just Seal like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. We hope, we urge them — the companies — to spread that seal far and wide. So you should see that on the side of airplanes, hopefully on billboards in Times Square, and around the country and other places. So that’s one way. That’s sort of leveraging the companies themselves who we hope are proud to be Just Companies and to be acknowledged as such.
Denver: Well, I did see a number of press releases by those companies indicating they were on this list, so that is a start.
Martin: It’s been a great start. We’ve had a huge amount of success I would say through social media with the companies spreading the word, so we’re very gratified by that. I think, as you say, it’s a good start. But in this day and age, you’ve got to have sustained profile and be out in the public eye a lot. So that’s one element of the strategy.
Another is for us to have partnerships, media partnerships. Obviously, we have a very good foundational partnership with Forbes Media. Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, “Most JUST Company” was on the cover of Forbes in December. They have quite a sizable following online and in print. So that’s another way we spread the word. We also try to get our data out through media channels. If you’re a reporter covering the environment, or if you’re somebody who’s doing a segment on Silicon Valley, we want you to use our data. We’re not trying to own that and be the only place where the discussion on justness happens. We want get our data out as far and wide as we can. So that’s what we’re trying to do. Spread the word on JUST Capital, a company, get the data out there, and then have the companies themselves that we’re ranking spread the word too.
Denver: And another exciting development–somewhat along these lines–is what Goldman Sachs is thinking of doing with these rankings. What might they be doing?
Martin: We launched an index a year ago that tracked the performance in the market of the “Most JUST Companies.” Essentially, it’s the top 50% of all the companies that we rank in each sector. That index is live on our website. So Goldman Sachs has filed to build an exchange-traded fund around that index. It would be the first JUST fund, so that investors can invest in the Most JUST Companies.
Denver: That’s fantastic. We talked a little bit about Intel and how they focus on corporate culture, so let me ask you a little bit about your corporate culture at JUST Capital. How would you describe your workplace culture? How much attention do you pay to it? And how do you try to shape and influence it?
Martin: Well, we try to walk the talk. We spend quite a bit of time measuring our culture. We have a lot of staff reviews. We do a lot of culture surveys in the company. We assess ourselves against the most relevant criteria that we’re assessing other large publicly traded companies. We try to build a diverse team of strong, passionate, highly-motivated people. We’re probably walking the same journey that many other small companies who’ve gone before us. And having now run a nonprofit for three years, I would say it’s not easy. It’s not easy, and it’s good that it’s not easy because it means that you sort of understand the difficulties that large company CEOs, the companies that we’re measuring, how hard it is for them as well.
So I would say building a great company, building a company with great culture is a journey, not a destination. Measuring that, being very proactive about that, paying people well, providing great benefits… we have phenomenal benefits at JUST Capital. We have three-month maternity/paternity leave, for example, fully paid. Flexible work schedules, work from home, all that stuff. We believe in that. Hopefully, it will pay dividends for us, too.
Denver: You know, Martin, so much has happened this past year: in society, in government; all around. Are there any other factors that you might be looking at in this coming year when you’re doing your rankings?
Martin: Well, we poll every year because we want to make sure that we’re tracking how American public sentiment and opinion really is changing. I expect in 2018, obviously, workplace issues, sexual harassment in the workplace. I would say wages, especially the lowest-paid workers in America. I would say also focus on the tax bill obviously, and how companies are responding to that and what they’re doing with any windfall or any excess cash that they’re generating. We’re going to be focusing on all of those issues in particular.
And then I would say, at the latter part of 2017, we’ve been very focused on opioids, and we’ve been tracking how companies… there are many that we ranked. That’s a good example of an issue that is still being understood, the full extent of it, and the role of companies. So I expect that things like that will really be the hook by which our rankings will change because we live in incredible times and issues can, I think, become extremely important very fast.
Denver: It’s incredible! The lifespan of Americans have dropped for the second successive year and pretty much opioids is at the center of that.
Martin: It’s awful, and it’s not just… It’s the whole supply chain. Not just manufacturing, but the distribution and at the local level. So through our community work, I expect that will be more important. We’re very focused on health. One of our funders as it happens is Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; very focused on building a strong culture of health in America through business behavioral change as well.
Denver: Let me close with this, Martin. What impact do you hope that these JUST Capital rankings will have on companies, on consumers, and society at large? And how do you hope to be able to gauge that?
Martin: Well, we fervently hope that companies will compete to become more Just. America is built around this idea of risk-taking competition, and I think a company getting companies competing to be Just, measuring that change in performance over time, which is really what our rankings do; being able to use the power of the markets and free choice so that people can provide the incentives for companies and the rewards at the end of the day for companies to become more JUST. We think people want to work for JUST companies. They want to buy from JUST companies. They certainly want to invest in JUST companies. And so, until now, you didn’t really know who they were, and that’s what I think the purpose of our rankings really is… is to sort of empower folks who are not happy with the status quo and want to reward the good guys and steer clear of the bad guys.
Denver: Well, Martin Whittaker, the President and CEO of JUST Capital, I want to thank you for being here this evening. If listeners want to get a look at the JUST 100, the JUST 1000, where can they go to access that information?
Martin: They can go to justcapital.com, and it’s all right there. Even though we’re dotcom, we are a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, and we’re always looking for donations and support. So if you see value in what we do… I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t urge people to support us.
Denver: I’m glad you did that. Well, thanks, Martin. This is a real contribution to the field, and it’s a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Martin: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you, Denver.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving