Friday, September 10, 2010

Philanthropy as a Business Model: Comparing Ford to craigslist

At The Conglomerate, Gordon Smith notes some comparisons between Dodge v. Ford (pdf here) and eBay v. Newmark (pdf here). I certainly see the comparison (and I think his post here on the case and Christine Hurt’s earlier post here are great).  Still, I think I am a little more critical of the Dodge v. Ford analogy than Professor Smith. Here’s why:

In Dodge v. Ford, Henry Ford stated clearly that he was operating the business as he saw fit and that he was changing toward supporting philanthropic purposes. As the Dodge v. Ford opinion notes:

‘My ambition,’ declared Mr. Ford, ‘is to employ still more men; to spread the benefits of this industrial system to the greatest possible number, to help them build up their lives and their homes. To do this, we are putting the greatest share of our profits back into the business.”

. . . .

The record, and especially the testimony of Mr. Ford, convinces that he has to some extent the attitude towards shareholders of one who has dispensed and distributed to them large gains and that they should be content to take what he chooses to give. His testimony creates the impression, also, that he thinks the Ford Motor Company has made too much money, has had too large profits, and that, although large profits might be still earned, a sharing of them with the public, by reducing the price of the output of the company, ought to be undertaken. We have no doubt that certain sentiments, philanthropic and altruistic, creditable to Mr. Ford, had large influence in determining the policy to be pursued by the Ford Motor Company-the policy which has been herein referred to.

Contrast this with Chancellor Chandler’s explanation of craiglist:

Nevertheless, craigslist’s unique business strategy continues to be successful, even if it does run counter to the strategies used by the titans of online commerce. Thus far, no competing site has been able to dislodge craigslist from its perch atop the pile of most-used online classifieds sites in the United States. craigslist’s lead position is made more enigmatic by the fact that it maintains its dominant market position with small-scale physical and human capital. Perhaps the most mysterious thing about craigslist’s continued success is the fact that craigslist does not expend any great effort seeking to maximize its profits or to monitor its competition or its market share.[fn6]

In further contrast to Henry Ford’s statements, in footnote 6 Chancellor Chandler provides a quote from craigslist’s CEO “testifying that craigslist’s community service mission ‘is the basis upon which our business success rests. Without that mission, I don’t think this company has the business success it has. It’s an also-ran. I think it’s a footnote.’”

Nonetheless, Chancellor Chandler, as Professor Smith points out, appears to see these cases in a similar light:

The corporate form in which craigslist operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment. Jim and Craig opted to form craigslist, Inc. as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from eBay as part of a transaction whereby eBay became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the craigslist directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.

Without getting into the appropriateness of the other moves taken by the majority owners of craigslist, I am inclined to think that craiglist’s explanation of their business model should sufficiently distinguish the mission – and business purpose – from that put forth by Henry Ford. That is, I have always been of the mind that Henry Ford could appropriately have defended his actions (or at least had a much stronger case) if he had never talked about doing anything other than building Ford into the strongest possible company for the longest possible term.

I see the problem for Henry Ford to say, in essence, that his shareholders should be happy with what they get and that workers and others are more his important to him than the shareholders. However, it would have been quite another thing for Ford to say, “I, along with my board, run this company the way I always have: with an eye toward long-term growth and stability. That means we reinvest many of our profits and take a cautious approach to dividends because the health of the company comes first. It is our belief that is in the best interest of Ford and of Ford’s shareholders.”

For Ford, there seemed to be something of a change in the business model (and how the business was operated with regard to dividends) once the Dodge Brothers started thinking about competing. All of a sudden, Ford became concerned about community first. For craigslist, at least with regard to the concept of serving the community, the company changed nothing. And, in fact, it seems apparent that craiglist’s view of community is one reason, if not the reason, it still has its “perch atop the pile.”

Thus, while it is true craigslist never needed to accept eBay’s money, eBay also knew exactly how craigslist was operated when they invested. If they wanted to ensure they could change that, it seems to me they should have made sure they bought a majority share.

Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink


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