Bain, Productivity, Capitalism and Compensation

In this election season, much is being made of whether or not Mitt Romney created or destroyed jobs while at Bain. Most reasonable business people understand that the discussion misses the point entirely and reveals complete ignorance on the part of some in government about how capitalism works, and what its inherent risks are. However, it does give us an opportunity to reflect on how some basic principles of capitalism apply to our businesses and the innovation cycles that fuel creative destruction. Wise companies will apply these same principles in their approach to compensation by recognizing what should be rewarded. I'll explain, but first let's set the stage by using Bain as the platform for our discussion.

In a recent Wall St. Journal editorial, Andy Kessler nails the Bain issue and uses it to describe the broader effect of capitalism at work in our modern society:

"Did Mitt Romney and Bain Capital help office-supply retailer Staples create 88,000 jobs? 43,000? 252? Actually, Staples probably destroyed 100,000 jobs while creating millions of new ones.

"Since 1986, Staples has opened 2,000 stores, eliminating the jobs of distributors and brokers who charged nasty markups for paper and office supplies. But it enabled hundreds of thousands of small (and not so small) businesses to stock themselves cheaply and conveniently and expand their operations.

"It's the same story elsewhere. Apple employs just 47,000 people, and Google under 25,000. Like Staples, they have destroyed many old jobs, like making paper maps and pink 'While You Were Out' notepads. But by lowering the cost of doing business they've enabled innumerable entrepreneurs to start new businesses and employ hundreds of thousands, even millions, of workers world-wide—all while capital gets redeployed more effectively."

That last phrase is key. The effective deployment of capital in any aspect of business or the economy is what fuels growth. And people are at the fulcrum of capital deployment. Likewise, they represent human capital at work in a business and financial capital is invested in them. The question, then, is whether a business is constantly evaluating it's capital deployment and determining if it is leveraging the company's ability to grow and keep ahead of the Staples, Apples and others who are mining the creative destruction landscape and determining how they can reinvent the future. All of this is good for the economy, good for jobs creation and good for businesses. It is a system that rewards productivity and productivity is found at the intersection of effectiveness and efficiency.

Kessler drives the productivity point home this way:

"Economists define productivity as output per worker hour. But ramping up the output of trolleys or 8-track tapes won't increase living standards. It is not just technical efficiency that matters, it is also effectiveness—that is, producing what the economy really needs and consumers will pay for.

"And so, in a broader sense, productivity is really about doing the right things the right way. Using modern construction equipment, we could build a pyramid on the National Mall in Washington with amazing efficiency, but it would not be effective.

"So how does productivity result in more employment?

"Three ways. First, some new technology comes along that allows something never before possible. Cash from an ATM, stock trading from an airplane's aisle seat, ads next to Google search results.

"The inventor or entrepreneur who uses the invention benefits from sales and wealth and hires people to produce the good or service. We don't hear about this. Instead we hear about the layoffs of bank tellers, stockbrokers and media salesmen. So productivity becomes the boogeyman for job losses. And many economic cranks would prefer that we just hire back the tellers and toll collectors.

"This is a big mistake because new, cheaper technology becomes a platform for others to create or expand businesses that never before made economic sense…

"The third way productivity results in more employment is by attracting capital to satisfy new consumer demands. In a competitive economy, productivity—doing more with less—always lowers the cost of products or services: $5,000 computers become $500 tablets. Consumers get to spend the difference elsewhere in the economy, and entrepreneurs will be happy to sell them what they want or create new things they never heard of, but will want. And those with capital will be eager to fund these entrepreneurs. Win, win.

"The mechanism to decide the most effective use for this capital is profits. The stock market bundles profits and is the divining rod of productivity, allocating capital in cycle after cycle toward the economy's most productive companies and best-compensated jobs. And it does so better than any elite economist or politician picking pork-barrel projects and relabeling them as 'investments.' "

All of this should offer huge clues to business owners, CEOs and others who need to make strategic determinations about how to deploy capital that will be invested in compensation. The natural cascading logic should look something like this:

  • A business creates value by meeting demands in the marketplace
  • The level of productivity achieved in the value creation process is reflected in profits
  • Business leaders need to reward productivity because it is the most effective and efficient deployment of capital, and results in greater profitability
  • Employees apply their unique abilities towards value creation in the business
  • Compensation, then, must reward productivity by sharing value with those who help create it
  • Companies that take this approach to remuneration become magnets for premier talent and accelerate their ability to create value productively and fuel growth

In the end, compensation strategies must both reflect and reinforce productivity cycles within the business. If they do, then rewards will become a natural extension of the overall productive deployment of capital in the business. When this happens, the business wins, employees win, the economy wins and, as a result, job creation is magnified.

To learn about three "real life" examples of businesses that have taken this approach, tune into our upcoming webinar on June 24 entitled "Success Stories in Pay for Performance."

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