Tricky Mission

Color Commentary

I ended the last issue asking “are values and mission the same?”

The answer is, they are the same, but different.

The distinctions matter only because I want to understand what a company is trying to tell me when they have a “values statement” or call themselves “purpose-driven”. Understanding what they’re trying to signal is as important as knowing what I’m looking for in the signals.

As a long-term value investor, I am looking for a company to invest in for many years. Like, ten or so. Ten years is a really long time. So long, that I barely even have a sense of what I’ll be doing myself in ten years. When I think back to what I was planning for myself ten years ago, the idea of investing was even less than a non-idea; I actively did NOT want anything to do with investing or finance. Things change. For myself, that’s ok, because I know my values and my priorities, and while the details may be surprising, I know the broad strokes.

Same thing with companies run by people I’ve never met. I figure that if I know a company’s values and priorities, the details may be surprising, but (as long as I trust the management) the broad strokes will be what I invested in. The big question constantly repeating in my mind is: what are you guys DOING here?

VALUES

A company’s “core values statement” describes the ideals it stands for in its behavior and culture. Values I’d like to have in an investment are:

  • honesty
  • integrity
  • zealous advocacy for the company
  • rigorous fair competition
  • intelligence
  • respect
  • passion

Check out Southwest’s values starting at #119 on this list of major company lists of values. That pretty much covers the important stuff for me.

MISSION

I The mission of a company is about what the company wants to do now and in the future to make a difference and change the world for the better. “Core mission statement” from a company describes what it wants to change and how it wants to be in the future.

A mission I’d like to have in an investment might be along the lines of: “Become the best provider in the world of excellent quality and ethically-sourced product while supporting our stakeholders in building better lives.”

PURPOSE

Finally, some business leaders have started describing their mission as “purpose-driven,” and when they use that term it gets closest to what I mean by, capitalized, “Mission”. Purpose-driven means the very reason for this endeavor to exist at all. Companies that are purpose-driven tend to inspire more trust among investors and employees and retain employees more easily. Of course, the company has to then follow-through on its purpose with action. Let’s find out what these companies are putting out there, and compare and contrast, to answer my question: What are you guys DOING HERE?

Voila, the Mission, or values, or purpose statement from forty-two of the world’s well-known public companies.

THE PROCESS

To find each mission statement, I followed a multi-step process. In most of the companies, the more steps I had to use, the less I believed the company actually cares about its mission.

That said, investing is always about the details, and in some of the companies, their bare-bones investor relations website (Berkshire Hathaway, Costco) or their extensive consumer-oriented website (Chipotle) indicated that their priorities are to give investors only strict filing information. In the context of understanding the company, I can also respect that choice – but only in context.

Berkshire Hathaway: Warren Buffett’s company (through which he does his investing) is all about no-frills value creation and their leader famously doesn’t even use a computer himself.

Costco: Their ethos is also no-frills with great quality, and their website has the same attitude.

Chipotle: They describe their antibiotic-free, often organic, made-in-store food, and mission to provide the best food at the best price extensively on the consumer website and to repeat it all on the investor relations website would be extraneous.

My steps to find the mission statement:

#1: The front page of the company’s investor relations website.
This is where it should be. If it wasn’t there, I take that as a signal that the company isn’t particularly interested in signaling its long-term purpose to potential investors. I don’t appreciate that.

#2: Pages such as “about” or “values” if the company offered them.
It is, obviously, harder to find if it’s tucked into these secondary pages. Maybe that’s because the company thinks it’s so important that it deserves it own page? OK, maybe.

#3: The most recent annual report in the “General” section.
Now I’m annoyed. I shouldn’t have to open up a mandatory SEC filing just to find out what this company is trying to achieve.

#4: Search online for company name and “mission statement,” which usually turned up a statement from a number of years ago or something said anecdotally by a founder.
This tells me it’s mere lip service, and the executives writing the shareholder letters and the people running the investor relations page don’t focus on the mission. That’s an assumption on my part, of course, but I think it’s a reasonable one. Not impressed.

(Hint to companies: put it on your main investor relations website! It’s ok to be earnest about what you’re doing! We like it!).

THE PRACTICE

Looking up each of these statements was an absolutely extraordinary investing practice for me. I wasn’t expecting to learn much from the search itself; I thought that the result – seeing each statement next to each other – would be valuable for its perspective on these statements.

It is.

But what I did not expect is how exciting it was to go to each company website and search for its Mission. I thought it would be pretty boring, actually, but when the first statement proved difficult to find, I got intrigued.

STARBUCKS

I figured this one would be easy. Starbucks likes to talk a lot about being environmentally conscious and sourcing ethical coffee; surely, they’d put their mission statement front and center. I started by searched online for “starbucks mission statement” (I hadn’t developed my four-step process yet) and this one popped up immediately: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.”

Well, that vagueness couldn’t be right. It didn’t help me become better informed about this company. It could represent the mission of the coffee shop on my corner just as well as this international corporation.

I went to the Starbucks investor relations website. The second to last tab was “Shareholder Resources” – yup, way down at the end – and in that tab was a button for “Social Impact”. It took me to the consumer Starbucks website and some nice information about how Starbucks is living out its conscious values. They’re quite attentive to this topic, as I expected.

Still, no Mission. I checked the company’s most recent annual report and got this in the very first paragraph: “Our objective is to maintain Starbucks standing as one of the most recognized and respected brands in the world…We also believe our Starbucks Global Social Impact strategy, commitments related to ethically sourcing high-quality coffee, contributing positively to the communities we do business in and being an employer of choice are contributors to our objective.”

Now THAT is useful to me as an investor. It tells me Starbucks sees its contribution as spreading its brand around the world and doing so ethically and positively. It tells me, through omission, that serving great coffee is NOT its main objective.

But then I went back to my search for “Starbucks mission statement” and discovered this lovely explanatory article, which quotes the original mission statement written by Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, from around 1999, as: “Establish Starbucks as the premier purveyor of the finest coffee in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles as we grow.”

Clear. Mission-oriented. Conscious. Mentions coffee. And Schultz carried it out.

But, it is no longer. Now that Howard Schultz is not active day-to-day in the company anymore, present-day Starbucks vagued it up and put out: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

Which, to me, says it all about who’s running Starbucks now. I don’t see a singular purpose to change the world for the better. I see a company trying to protect and expand its brand. Nothing more. Howard Schultz, I believe, did see his mission as making the world a better place. Maybe that’s no longer true of his company.

After Starbucks, I started rolling through these companies, and the more I researched, the more invigorated I felt. I didn’t look up or eat or drink for hours while I was researching. Not healthy. But I felt amaaaazing. Excited, present, thrilled to be learning. What an investing practice day.

Some companies had incredible, easy-to-find missions, and some were like pulling teeth to find anything remotely referencing a mission. By the background information on the website or the first page of the annual report (I didn’t go any deeper than that), I quickly got a sense for whether a certain company walked its talk – or not. I got a true education on these major companies that I see every day.

Like this one.

FACEBOOK AND FACEBOOK OWNED COMPANIES

Facebook owns Instagram, Oculus, and Whatsapp (and others). Reports are that upon purchase of each one, Mark Zuckerberg assured the founders they would be permitted, nay, encouraged to continue running their companies according to the values they had based them on. For Instagram, that was no advertising and Facebook not stealing their ideas. For Whatsapp, that was no advertising and maintaining user privacy. For Oculus, that was developing cutting edge virtual reality.

Instagram founders quit.

Whatsapp founder quit, and then the other Whatsapp founder also quit.

Oculus founder quit.

Notice a trend? No? Just me? It makes me angry to read of passionate, innovative, disruptive founders relying on the assurance that they can keep running their creation they way they choose – and find out later that their creation is being used to steal ever more private information and use it for the parent’s profit. Utterly frustrating. Utterly maddening.

I had this conversation about Facebook with an investor friend. She retorted that she uses Facebook to stay in touch with friends she wouldn’t otherwise still talk to, which is nice, but for her, the most important way she uses Facebook is to get information and community when she needs it, and fast. (I’m deliberately being vague about the following so I don’t share her private information.) One time, when she needed some information about children that would help her make an important decision, she posted the question on Facebook and within an hour, she had multiple references to resources, personal anecdotal information, and access to groups of people centered on that information. She said she could have found the resources herself by spending a few hours searching online, but she wouldn’t have had any of the personal perspectives or advice that she found extremely helpful.

I hear that. It’s not nothing. It’s important. That’s why Facebook has as many investors as it does.

NETFLIX

Finally, Netflix, where I started last issue, does not have a stated “Mission” in the way I think of it, with conscious attention to the greater good or stakeholders.

Soon after writing the last issue, I stumbled on this article in the Wall Street Journal that came out on October 25, 2017, so it’s old, but I hadn’t seen it then. Well. Netflix got some blowback about the way it treats employees. Amazon, move over, you’re not the only big bad employer in town. The self-criticism sessions they do sound horrific, like a Maoist “struggle session”.

Yet, people venerate the way Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of Netflix, has pivoted his company around Blockbuster and Qwikster and competition with other streaming services. I certainly do. This is something I’m going to be struggling with, I can tell. A disruptive company like Netflix or Amazon is disruptive internally, in ways I don’t like. How do I reconcile that? I’d love your opinions. We’re going to set up comments soon on the Practice Archive, but in the meantime, email me your reaction at danielle@danielletown.com.

Scanning mission statements was a nice dose of perspective on what these guys are putting out for us, the potential investors, to consume. As with everything in investing, do not depend on this extremely subjective and interpreted list. I wish it had been quite straightforward, but companies don’t always do a good job of presenting their mission. As always in investing, you must do your own research and develop your own opinion or suffer the consequences of realizing you’ve bought a company without knowing where its going. It’s through the research that you’ll get a sense of what these words actually mean in real life.

I cannot recommend enough doing this kind of practice yourself.

LET’S GET PRACTICAL

Worth reading: I particularly point you to the Berkshire Hathaway Owner’s Manual and the Netflix Culture manifesto (discussed more in this issue, below). Both well worth reading for what they disclaim as much as claim.

Scan mission statements yourself. Start with the links I included in the mission statements list to get a sense, then search on your own for the mission statement of some of the companies I chose.

Do you agree with the one I pulled for any of the companies? You may not, which would be great discernment practice and noticing that our practices differ, thanks to our own background knowledge and biases.

Then, try it yourself with a number of companies and notice, after 15 or 20, how quickly you can dip into a company and find the missions and learn what they do.

Ownership Disclosure: Danielle Town owns shares in Chipolte Mexican Grill (CMG) and Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) .

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