Enhancing Shareholder Value a.k.a. killing business success

At some point in the 1980’s someone came up with the idea of shareholder value. The idea was that the ultimate success of a company was to maximize the value that the company delivered to shareholders. Seems like a pretty reasonable idea, until you start to see what people who use this term really mean.

What is often done in the name of “enhancing shareholder value” is totally the antipathy of the obvious definition of the idea.

Surely (you would imagine) that shareholders would want to see a company perform well over a long period of time. And you would imagine that performing well would be a simple concept, where the money a company spends on developing and selling its product would be less than the money it brings in from its customers. You would imagine that in the same way you balance your bank account every month a company would be measured as being successful if there was “profit” on the business they perform.

But you would not be correct!

The stock market and therefore the executives of large companies look for increasing returns not just profit. So if a company continually makes a 10% profit every year according to those who measure shareholder value that company is failing.

So the pressure is on to show increases in revenue, and decreases in costs, so that year on year, quarter on quarter the business “grows”, and so the company gets bigger and the shareholders are then told by the “experts” that the shareholder value is increasing.

This drives companies to off-shore their workforce, find lower cost suppliers, reduce their work force and consider unbelievably expensive mergers and acquisitions. In the very short term these things seem to drive down costs or increase revenue and so that’s a good thing. But they really don’t make a company healthier, they kill it.

I’ve seen company executive’s looks to buy a company at any cost, just to get a small increase in revenue this year. It doesn’t matter that the money spent can never be recovered, it’s about achieving a revenue target, not a margin target. It’s often inane.

A large number of acquisitions never make a profit, what they do in move huge sums of money and stock from a healthy company to the owners of a less healthy company. The two merged companies for a short time have increased revenue, but the cost and mess of merging the businesses often leads to reduced performance and so the growth slows down. Angry customers leave, and new customers question the value of entering this created confusion. So all too often the sum of the parts is less than the whole, and within a few years the revenue of the merged business looks like the revenue would have already been of the healthier if the two parts if they had not merged. To me that says that the billions spent on the merger were entirely wasted. At the same time all the changes demanded to streamline the two businesses cause the best and the brightest to leave and huge political infighting between executives takes place to grab the reduced number of top spots. Innovation slows and then the business is forced to go through more rounds of off-shoring and layoffs to reduce costs even further to have to pay for the debt created from the merger.

Of course there are winners from M&A, those who broker the deal, the CEO’s and CFO’s, the banks and the private equity firms all get lucrative multi-million dollar payoffs as part of their self-created wonderland.

And there are lots of losers, employees, customers, shareholders.

I’ve worked for a number of companies who have acquired large businesses over and over again, and I’ve seen the carnage it creates. Apart from the small number of execs and bankers who make the deal happen, I’m at a loss to see who gains, except maybe of course for India and China.

Maximizing shareholder value seems to be the modern euphemism for “Screw you I’m taking it all”.

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