I Can’t Believe What BP’s Former CEO Just Said

In an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), former BP plc (NYSE: BP) CEO Lord John Browne said, “Purpose is the litmus test of sustainability in business. Companies that want to be around for decades to come must ensure that society is at the heart of everything they do.”

That’s purpose, not profits… and that stands everything we expect from business on its head.

#-ad_banner-#Well, almost everything.

“Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) has been a big buzzword for a while now. The problem is, according to Browne, CSR is more of a lip service and morale booster than a catalyst for improving society…

(In most cases, that is. We’ll get to more about this in a minute.)

In other words, CSR allows a company to feel good about doing less bad. Does your company recycle? Grand! Does it donate time and money to community causes? Grand!

But that’s not enough.

In a recent NPR interview, Browne said:

While corporate social responsibility was a very well meaning and worthy thing to have started, it no longer serves a useful purpose in that it is detached from the basics of a business, and it is something, which in the words of one of my friends, that boards of directors only examine at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.

True connection with society means a radical integration of CSR into the very DNA of business.

What this really means is a deep understanding of how a company engages with society at every level. CSR is not just an add-on to the corporate reports every quarter. Browne calls this connected leadership, and it focuses on the idea that all stakeholders — not just shareholders — are an important part of a company’s resilience and longevity.

That means connected leadership is somewhat of a selfish act.

The efforts and policies done through connected leadership should increase the life and prosperity of the company, making these “social” policies in the company’s own best interests.

Browne certainly admits this, saying that tying connected leadership analysis and goals to core business activities increases business. And he also adds that failing to effectively connect with society can slash a company’s value.

“Research by McKinsey shows that, on average, 30% of corporate earnings are at stake when it comes to a company’s relationships with society,” he wrote in HBR. “Indeed, when the news broke that Volkswagen had been accused of cheating emissions standards tests last year, its share price fell by almost 35% in the next two days of trading.”

And when trust is broken in such a big way, sometimes, there’s not coming back.

Take Takata Corp (OTC: TKTDY) after the massive airbag recall. Share prices have fallen a whopping 87.7% since early 2014 highs.

But let’s get back one point. Browne says that CSR isn’t really working, and while he’s not wrong in many cases, there’s a small but growing segment of the marketplace that is really taking what Browne calls “connected leadership” to heart.

They’re called b-corps, short for Benefit Corporations.

It’s a legal structure that can help preserve values that are important to the company.

And by values, I’m talking about public benefits beyond profits, like operating in a responsible and sustainable manner… the very things that Browne is emphasizing. The Benefit Corp Information Center says that b-corp laws give protection to companies that voluntarily meet higher standards of corporate purpose, accountability and transparency.

One might think these kinds of standards mean lower profits, but that’s not necessarily the case.

“There’s no downside to it. You’re just aligning your intention, the philosophy of your business, from the very beginning, around a public good. That’s something every company can do,” says Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler.

And investors are increasingly getting on board with this holistic, longer-term philosophy, particularly as we’ve watched many companies slash personnel and sell assets in support of shorter-term financial metrics like quarterly profits.

B-corps don’t ignore profits… they just aren’t the sole purpose of the business.

Etsy, Inc. (Nasdaq: ETSY) is a b-corp that’s also growing revenue by double-digits.

Analysts predict quarterly revenue growth of 31.3% this quarter and another 27.8% next quarter. For the full 2016 year, revenue could come in at $351.51 million, roughly 28.5% higher than 2015 revenues.

And next year, revenues could top $426.7 million!

That kind of growth could push earnings per share into positive territory next year, meaning now might be a perfect time to take a long-term position.

Risks To Consider: Etsy shares have tumbled since its IPO, as it has struggled to turn in positive numbers. Transitions into the green are notoriously rocky, and the timeline is anything but predictable.

Take a look at how share prices have fared over the past two years.

Clearly, its share price is not immune to drops. Being a b-corp or focusing on connected leadership does not equal invincibility.

But these things do mean a clearer understanding of corporate identity and the challenges facing the company. Both of these things will inform policies and decisions by management going forward. As Browne has shown, a focus these things rather than the short-term financial snapshot will translate into longevity and sustainability.

Action To Take: Etsy, Inc. (Nasdaq: ETSY) shares have started to bounce back, up 18.52% so far this year. That bests mainstream stores and the S&P 500. According to Reuters, April saw the largest jump in consumer spending in seven years, and fund managers expect specialty retailers like Etsy to continue to outperform.

With a high target of $12 per share, investors can snag 22.5% profits as Etsy’s earnings climb into the green.

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