The promise of B-corps
At the end of Seth Stevenson’s glowing profile of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, he mentions the way that Chouinard recently converted his company to a B-corp:
Registering as a “benefit corporation” lets a firm declare—in its articles of incorporation—that the fiduciary duty of its executives includes “consideration of the interests of workers, community and the environment,” and not just the bottom line.
Chouinard marched into state offices on the morning of January 3, 2012, to make Patagonia the very first company to register as a benefit corporation in California. It remains the most prominent company nationwide to have registered thus far. For Chouinard, the value of this is less about the present than the future. He can do whatever he wants at Patagonia right now, with no threat of shareholders revolting if he sacrifices a bit of profit in the name of menschy communitarianism. He owns the place in full, for as long as he’s alive. But he’s cagey about succession, and it’s clear what he fears: He never wants Patagonia to go public, or to lever itself up in search of rapid growth, as it mistakenly did before. He’s convinced that becoming a benefit corporation will help prevent that from ever happening.
I spent a bit of time researching B-corps when I was writing my Wired story on the problem with IPOs, and I think that B-corps are actually much more interesting than Stevenson is giving them credit for. The whole point of a B-corp, as I see it, is that you can go public, or lever yourself up in search of rapid growth, or give your employees lucrative stock options — you can generally behave just like all those money-chomping red-blooded capitalists, while also giving yourself a lot of freedom to do things like save the planet and ignore pesky shareholders agitating for explosive and infinite growth.
B-corps—Maryland was the first to charter them in 2010—can still have public shareholders, dividends, stock offerings, and all the other tools in the modern financial arsenal. But unlike other public companies, whose sole legal duty is to maximize profits for shareholders, executives at B-corps are also required to consider nonfinancial interests when they make decisions. Indeed, the company has to create a material positive impact on society and the environment.
That has the potential to rewire one of the most dangerous things about being a public company today: the requirement to keep growing, no matter what. B-corps can and will be listed on stock exchanges, just like any other public company. And there is no reason that they shouldn’t perform like normal shares. But investors and employees can take pride in the fact that their company is not just concerned with short-term financial gain. Best of all, the pressure to grow at all costs dissipates, and it becomes a lot harder for angry or litigious shareholders to agitate for changes just because they’re unhappy about the stock price.
There will undoubtedly be a discount applied to any B-corp looking to go public — its valuation won’t be as high as if it were a conventional company. But once it has gone public, there’s no reason its share price shouldn’t grow just as fast as any other company. If the discount stays constant, then the return to shareholders is exactly the same as it would have been at a full valuation. And if the “menschy communitarianism” of the company, in Stevenson’s words, actually ends up helping the company’s bottom line, then the discount might well shrink, thereby boosting total shareholder returns.
If Chouinard “never wants Patagonia to go public”, then, registering as a B-corp is not going to help him. But I suspect the idea here is that by registering as a B-corp, Chouinard is creating a company which can go public without losing its soul. And, without resorting to non-voting share classes and the like.