Warren Buffett defended Brazilian private equity firm 3G, with whom he invested in Kraft Heinz, at his annual meeting over the weekend and again on CNBC Monday morning. You recall that 3G, as Geoff Colvin deftly demonstrated in this Fortune profile, is known for taking a ruthless approach to cost cutting, throttling growth in the process, and thus is forced to continuously devour new companies to keep the top line growing. When Kraft Heinz threatened to buy Unilever, which stands out for its long-term commitment to social and environmental goals, I referred to it as a “collision of two very different models of capitalism.” The bid was dropped.
Here’s Buffett’s defense:
“We don’t enjoy the process of getting more productive. It’s just not as much fun to be in a business that cuts jobs as one that adds jobs….But I think it’s pro-social in terms of improving productivity, and I think the people at 3G do a very good job of that.”
On CNBC Monday, he added:
“They (3G) have been very good about severance pay and all of that, but they have followed the standard capitalist formula, market system formula, of trying to do business with fewer people.”
Buffett is right, of course, that improving productivity is the foundation of capitalism and the key to growing wages and living standards. But the question is whether companies like Kraft Heinz should take more of the money they save in productivity gains and invest it into new, job-creating lines of businesses. That was once the standard approach of large companies, as Joseph Bower and Lynn Paine argued recently in an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Error at the Heart of Corporate Leadership.” But these days, the short term view seems to prevail.
Do big corporations have a responsibility to fund future growth? I’ve indicated my sympathies lie with those who believe business should have purpose beyond profits. At a time when polls show people losing faith in the capitalist system, that seems more important now than ever. But others counter that business should be focused on providing profits to shareholders, and those shareholders can then use their gains to fund new businesses if they so choose.
This is no small matter, so I’m eager to hear the views of CEO Daily readers. Do you favor the 3G approach, the Unilever approach, or think there might be a happy medium?