CEOs don’t get paid to watch the grass grow. So, staring out the window this morning, looking at the Victory Garden sprouting in its raised beds in our front yard here at Timberland is hardly serving my shareholders, which is my fiduciary responsibility.
But staring I am, as Yoda might say.
A few months ago, we announced that VF Corp, a powerful force in our industry would pay $43 a share to our shareholders, acquiring the company and the brand and the culture that my grandfather founded, my father built and I stewarded. Between Nathan and Sidney and Jeff, we have invested more than 100 years of our living in an idea and a dream and a passion. And so when we made the announcement, we did so with a wicked strange blend of bone rattling emotions.
How to think about this, as the last sturdy vegetables, flowers and herbs strain towards a September sky here in New Hampshire? We built this Victory Garden a few years ago, and I honestly get deep joy watching my colleagues invest some of their Path of Service volunteer hours to compost and mulch and sow and reap organic produce, which is sold in our headquarters, with the proceeds going to feed the working poor here in southern New Hampshire. When the idea of paid time to volunteer in the community was an idea, it burned in my gut. When victory
For three generations, we’ve tried to create and master a weird new kind of modern dance—the one that blends the foxtrot of “fiduciary responsibility to shareholders” with the tango of “authentic brand building,” with the Alvin Ailey contortion of “sustainable for profit business practice.” Today,
Recently, I listened to the acquirer’s CEO addressing Timberland employees, in an open air town hall meeting (we take the 10 minutes of New England summer time seriously here, and so when we can meet outdoors, we do). It tore my guts out, to sit in the community gathering as a listener, watching my colleagues watching the new boss, wondering what changes are in store for our brand, our business, our community.
I held my breath for much of the 90 minutes outdoors, listening to the new leader speak, watching my colleagues listen. And then, in best Timberland/New England fashion, the town hall went to work, with questions, respectful but engaged, authentic, old-fashioned civic democracy. Employees acting like citizens, raising fears, expressing concerns, asking for information.
Made me smile and shake my head. This is New Hampshire, which means some time too soon, a whole host of slick candidates will parade through our small towns, playing at democracy. Staged, phony, self-dealing, pandering politicians. Watching the new guy standing in front of the Timberland community was inspiring—reminded me that the right kind of for-profit business leaders are really accountable, personally and practically, in a way that should be a model for our so-called political leaders. Whatever this leader said or committed to, his employees will hold him to account. Not once every four years—every single day. Engaged democracy—not a fiction or an aspiration, rather a principle in practice, even in a stressful circumstance.
And right on queue, as I was appreciating democracy in actual practice, an environmental activist in our ranks rose, way in the back, to ask the new guy, the Boss to Be, about sustainability.
“Tell us, please, why sustainability is important to you.”
Wow. That is town hall democracy the way Rockwell painted it. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide—respectful, but a “no quarter granted” question.
And the man with whom I negotiated hard and long for the best possible deal for shareholders stood his ground, and answered, authentically and naturally. “The answer is simple—we believe that sustainability is good for the business and good for the world environmentally.”
He went on; the answer got more detailed and more concrete. But I had stopped listening.
For 30 years, we’ve been trying, fighting, struggling, to choreograph the intricate interaction between shareholder value, consumer demand, and social accountability. I have the scars, and the long list of failed efforts, incomplete outcomes, unrealized dreams and frustrated ambitions before my eyes all the time that reflect this passionate effort. And yet in this poignant moment of transition, from a business run by my family for three generations to a business to be run by relative strangers–here is the CEO of a 10B$ powerhouse, talking about sustainability simply and easily—good for business, good for the earth. And he means what he says. And it strikes me, hard, as I sit there—30 years later, a vitally important conversation has shifted. Maybe, there comes a time to say, “my job here is finished.”
Used to be, “what in the world does for-profit business have to do with social issues? That’s the purview of the government or the church.” And yet here, and now—I hear this powerful leader telling my colleagues, announcing to the whole damn world, that the question is not “if” corporations should be involved in questions of sustainability—not “if,” only “how.” Thirty years later–the corporate conversation turns from “if” to “how.”
Has been one heckuva journey, these nearly 30 years…
Watching the Victory Garden struggle up towards the heavens on this, my final morning at work in corporate America….