Excellence in Corporate Citizenship on Display in the Coronavirus Crisis

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute and the G&A team   — starting a new conversation about the corporate and investor response the coronavirus crisis…this is the beginning….

These are the times when actions and reactions to crisis helps to define the character of the corporation and shape the public profiles of each of the corporate citizens. For companies, these are not easy times.

Many important decisions are to be made, many priorities set in an environment of unknown unknowns — and there are many stakeholders to be taken care of.  

Employees – Customers – Suppliers – Regulators – Partners – Investors – Lenders – Communities – Civic Leadership.

We are in the age of the stakeholder – beyond the long-time focus on investors only (the Milton Friedman school of shareholder primacy).

Setting the challenge before corporate leaders for us, The New York Times in a story by Jim Tankersley and Ben Casselman, we read:

“Economists fear that by the time the coronavirus pandemic subsides and economic activity resumes, entire industries could be wiped out, proprietors across the country could lose their businesses and millions of workers could find themselves jobless.”

As the Federal government rushes to aid the American society, CEO Chuck Robbins of Cisco put things in perspective in the story: “It’s critical that D.C. do something fast for companies – if you get 80 percent right today, it’s better than waiting a week and getting it 90% right.”

The good news:  Corporations are not waiting – decisions are being made quickly and action is being taken to protect the enterprise – no easy task while protecting the corporate brand, the reputation for being a good corporate citizen, watching out for the investor base and the employee base — and all stakeholders.

We’re starting this commentary in the first week of the crisis breaking through the barriers of doubt and with reality setting in. What are companies doing? How will the decisions made at the top in turn affect the company’s employees, customers, hometowns, suppliers, other stakeholders? Stay tuned.

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March 20, 2020 – Day Four of the National Shutdown in the Coronavirus Crisis…

Outdoor Heroes and Timberland

(The firm is well known for its shoes and boots and out-of-doors gear)

Message to Consumers
At Timberland, we’ve always cared deeply about nature and people.
With this great passion, comes the responsibility to protect the health and well-being of our community. For this reason, to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and minimize impact, we’ve decided to temporarily close our stores. All retail employees at these locations will continue to receive full pay and benefits during the closure period.

In the meantime, we can stay in touch through our social channels and your can shop from home at our online store with free shipping.
As an outdoor brand, it’s hard for us to suggest that you stay home, but for now it’s advised. Perhaps use this time to plan your next outdoor adventure. Nature will wait for us. #NATURENEEDSHEROES (end)

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Amazon – Hiring Underway in the Dark Valley of Layoff Land

The giant internet retailer Amazon is set on hiring 100,000 workers for warehouse and delivery services to help the company meet the delivery demand during the crisis period. This could be a relief for workers laid off in key industries – restaurants, hospitality, airlines, amusement parks, and other service industry categories.

The company will create both full and part-time positions, paying a minimum of $15 per hour to $17 per hour in the USA, with similar raises in Canada, the UK and EU states.

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Delivering All Those Packages – FedEx on the Line

FedEx says it will not require recipient to physically sign for deliveries during the crisis in the USA. The company has set up COVID-19 safety page for information: https://www.fedex.com/en-us/coronavirus.html

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Paying for Those Deliveries — Chase Bank for Business – Adjusting Branch Hours

Chase Bank notified customers today that branch hours may be adjusted (for in-person or ATM visits). The bank encourages customers to use the Chase Mobil App (bank from anywhere). The bank explains that the branch teams are using EPA-approved disinfectants for cleaning ATM screens and key pads for customer safety.

“Chase for Business” has a “Business recovery page” for the latest information. Chase is encouraging customers to tune in to the advice at: https://recovery.chase.com/customers  — to keep their contact information current and up to date.

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Valley Bank – Relief for Customers — From the Regional Bankcorp Serving New York, New Jersey, Florida and Alabama.

Announcing Relief Measures:

  • The bank will be increasing debit and credit card limits.
  • Increasing the funds held in ATMs for easy access to cash.

For eligible customers (consumer and business) – the invitation is out to connect with the Valley representative to discuss interest and principal deferrals; waiver of overdraft charges; waiver of penalties for early CD withdrawals for emergencies; increased loan limits.

Valley is an SBA lender and will implement the federal government’s emergency plans. Bancorp has total of US$37.5 assets.

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Grubhub – We’ll Save Restaurants $100 Million in the Crisis

CEO / Founder Matt Maloney told CNN that the firm is temporally suspending collection of up to US$100 million in commission fees for delivery etc that the firm collects from vendors.

Grubhub services more than 350,000 restaurants of all types, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Subway. But of the total, some 80% are locally-owned businesses.

The announcement was made in Chicago with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and local restaurant owners present and participating.

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Information That Board Members Need in the Crisis

The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) is the premier board member professional organizations; both individual and full board membership is offered, as well as membership for board advisors. This is an educational- and informational-focused peer organization for the board room.

For the crisis, NACD is offering limited access to “NACD Directors Daily”® -that is usually for members only; this also has links for board members to access key COVID-19 resources.
For information: Matt Barone, Director, Board Development – www.NACDonline.org

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What is Happening in the Distant Work Site? Verité is the Checker

Verité, the supply chain audit company, communicates that its team members are now working from home and that all offices are closed. The program and project work continues with remote connecting.

The work that usually involves group visits to factories, farms or other worksites is now suspended. Verité is collaborating with funders, partners, clients, other stakeholders to determine the way forward such as adjusting the programs to protect its team members.

The organization notes: This, as vulnerabilities of workers worldwide are increasing. The firm will be back in full swing as soon as “trusted authorities” say that it is OK.

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Burlington Retail Stores – Open But Watching Carefully

Burlington Stores, Inc. (NYSE:BURL) is a well-known retailer of off-price high-quality, branded apparel (and toys, gifts, home goods) with 700-plus stores across the United States (in 47 states and Puerto Rico).

The corporate offices are closed in New Jersey so employees could work at home, and stores’ hours are reduced with evaluation going on about the retail, local store operations.

Today, 100 stores have been closed. The Fortune 500® company “is carefully managing expenses, inventory receipts, capex and balance sheet.

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Update For Greater New York City – Business and Government Partnerships in the five boroughs (counties) of the city.

City Council Member Brad Lander (D-Brookyn) shared this news today:

Essential Businesses: Governor Andrew Cuomo has expanded on business closures. Restaurants, bars and cafes may only serve food take-out and delivery. Gyms, theaters and many other establishments have been ordered to close.

Gatherings of over 50 people are prohibited. (Later reduced further.)

Yesterday, Governor Cuomo ordered that all non-essential businesses reduce their workforce by 50%. He said that essential businesses would include health-care providers, grocery and food production, pharmacies, shipping, media, warehousing, utilities, banks and related financial institutions, and other industries critical to the supply chain.

Everyone is encouraged to work from home wherever possible.

Schools: NYC Schools (with one millions students, largest system in the USA) are closed this week as teachers prepare for distance learning. Grab-and-go meals are available for students between 7:30 and 1:30 am at any public school.

Next week, some schools will open as enrichment centers to provide childcare, food and support for children of essential workers and those who cannot stay home.

Some online learning resources are already available here. NYC is buying and giving out laptops for students who do not have access to technology at home (people can fill out the form to request tech).

Spectrum  is making internet access free for those who do not already have it for the next two months.

Spectrum is service of the franchise holder – Charter Communications, Inc. – the NYC service was formerly owned by Time Warner Cable. The company is offering free access to Spectrum Broadband and Wi-Fi for 60 days for new K-12 and college student households beginning March 16. Click here for more info. 

Hospital capacity: The City and State are taking action to find and create more hospital beds and supplies, as we look ahead to overwhelmed hospitals. They are considering turning spaces like the Javits Conference Center and private hotels into emergency hospitals. The shortage of beds and supplies means that we all need to do our part in preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed.

Paid Sick Leave: The New York State legislature passed legislation yesterday to provide emergency paid sick leave up to two weeks for employees who test positive for the virus or are told to quarantine.

While that is a good step, says Council Member Lander, the legislation leaves out hundreds of thousands of workers in NY who are independent contractors, including many mis-classified workers like food delivery workers and for hire drivers. “I am continuing to push for an expansion of paid sick leave to reach many more people, both now and in the long term”, he declared.

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G&A Institute Team Note:
We will continue to bring you news of private (corporate and business), public and social sector developments as organizations in the three societal sectors adjust to the emergency.

The new items will be posted at the top of the blog post and the items today in this first blog post will move down the queue.

We are creating the tag “Corporate Purpose – Virus Crisis” for this continuing series – and the hashtag #WeRise2FightCOVID-19 for our Twitter posts.  Do join the conversation and contribute your views and news. 

Send us news about your organization – info@ga-institute.com so we can share.   Stay safe – be well — keep in touch!

The Corporate Proxy Season is Underway – ESG Issues Are in Focus

by Hank Boerner, Chairman, G&A Institute

It’s a new year and the 2014 corporate proxy season is really underway, and the topics in focus are reflective of asset owners’ and managers’ concerns about key societal issues. Managements taking no action on the issues, deciding the wrong actions, or boards and managers ignoring the facts regarding key topics of concern to the asset owners could lead to greater risk, lost opportunities, and dramatic hits on corporate reputation — and share price valuations.

And all of that that could affect the value of the investors’ holdings. Since many of the shareowners are fiduciaries (think of SRI mutual funds, public employee pension funds, state trust funds), the growing consensus is that as fiduciaries, asset owners have a duty to be vocal, to actively engage with corporate management, and to take strong stands on key ESG issues. And, in some cases, to bring those issues to the electoral process at proxy time so all shareholders can have their say. Of course, there is usually negative press resulting for some companies.

“Proxy season” used to be those times of year when certain gadflies showed up to (in the view of management and board) ” harass” the assembled corporate leadership. (Such pioneer proxy luminaries as the Gilbert Brothers and Evelyn Davis come to mind.)

Today, the proxy  season is actually a year-round engagement, with advocates such as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) institutional members active in dialogue with corporate managements and board members on various E-S-G issues. One sea change of a decade ago or more was the linking of traditional corporate governance concerns with environmental and social or societal issue concerns, and working through the barriers to getting their resolution to the proxy statement and to vote.

Linking “good governance” practices with progress (or lack of) on supply chain issues, or product stewardship, marketing practices, protection of natural resources, or lobbying and political spending, now helps advocates avoid the “no action” letter from the SEC that allowed corporate managements to ignore the shareholder’s resolution. (In the past, the usual practice of SEC staff was to advise the company protesting the draft resolution that “no action” would be recommended to the commissioners if the company ignored the draft.)

So what is in store for 2014 corporate proxy voting — what are the issues in focus? Sustainable & responsible investing (SRI) advocates are raising issues with companies about public policy and climate. (As we write this, every US state is in the grip of a cold wave, that is being linked to climate change by experts.)  For two decades now, investors have engaged company managements about climate change.

Now, coalitions of shareholders are involved in a larger collective effort — “Raising the Bar” — in response, they say, to the expanding and alarming scientific evidence of our changing climate. And, as long-term advocates like Tim Smith of Walden Asset Management point out, the resulting significant environmental and economic impacts on the corporate enterprise. Investor interests are very concerned about climate change.

A number of companies — AEP, Chevron, Conoco, ExxonMobil — have received draft resolutions by coalition shareowners urging boards and managements to re-examine their opposition to regulation and legislation intended to address climate change. That includes their lobbying on climate change issues and disclosing more about those actions to their owners.

It’s not just direct company actions in focus — the shareowners include the corporation-funded efforts of the US Chamber of Commerce , the oil lobby (American Petroleum Institute) and the National Association of Manufacturers in the lobbying and advocacy on issues…

Beyond climate change, other proxy resolutions call for companies to re examine their state-level lobbying, especially through such groups as ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), which operates primarily with corporate contributions and promotes conservative public policy issues with :”model” legislation which often moves from state-to-state. (An example is the “Stand Your Ground” laws adopted by a number of states.)

The companies in focus include Microsoft, Pfizer, Time Warner Cable, and UPS. Among the prime movers in this initiative: State of Connecticut Retirement Plans, Zevin Asset Management, Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, and Walden Asset Management clients.

Some companies are responding to shareowner concerns — Coca-Cola, John Deere, Dell, P&G, GE, GM, Unilever, and Wal-Mart have reduced their involvement or quit ALEC,according to information provided by Walden Asset Management.

Other concerns: ICCR’s David Schilling advises that an issue now in focus is the garment industry’s pricing policies, following the Rana Plaza tragic fire in Bangladesh (killing 1,000+ people). The “Accord for Fire and Building Safety” addresses pricing practices and the almost 300 institutional members of ICCR and other shareholder advocates are focused on current pricing models, outsourcing, and prevailing wages in developing countries.

And, from Green Century Capital Management we hear that more than 40 institutional investors representing US$270 billion in AUM are urging the other invesotrs, major palm oil products, consumers, and major shareholders in such companies as food marketers Kellogg and financiers HSBC to support an effort to not contribute to further deforestation or support human rights violations. “Fueling deforestation is bad business for any company seeking to position itself as a responsible, sophisticated global player,” says Lucia von Reusner, Green Century’s shareholder advocate.

Ceres helps to mobilize business and investor leadership on climate change. Rob Berridge, director of shareholder engagement, says investors Ceres works with are asking corporate managements to actively address forced labor, deforestation, habitat destruction, and accelerating GhG emission, and to develop and operate palm plantations more responsibly.

Consumer-facing brand companies — Uniliver, Kellogg, Dunkin Donuts, HSBC — are facing high-profile consumer campaigns on palm oil issues. Some companies are saying in response that they will purchase of finance palm oil that has been certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

There is much more action to come in the days ahead as the peak of proxy voting nears — we’ll bring you news and commentary and insight on trends in this space.  Stay Tuned to the 2014 ESG-focused proxy campaigns.