A story came along this week that made me think it really is time we consider dividing the human race into two subspecies: homo sapiens magnanimus and homo sapiens moneygrubbus. The story, in The New York Times, concerns everyone who drives a car with a Takata airbag--in other words, millions of Americans--and highlights two very different ways of doing business.
The article essentially contrasted two companies' approach to the airbags that are now the subject of the largest auto recall in history. One of them was a competing airbag manufacturer, Autoliv. This company, when pressured to match the cheaper Takata airbags, recognized from the start the risks in Takata's design and refused to compromise its principles to retain General Motors' business. (Did I say General Motors? I meant the old GM.) In contrast, the other company--the old GM--giddy at the prospect of a few dollars' savings per airbag, stuck to its principle of maximizing profits and took the cheaper route.
Why does this sound so familiar? Oh yeah, there was the little ignition-switch problem of a couple years back, when it was revealed that the old GM knowingly chose to save a buck per switch rather than replace the defective one that was causing engines to suddenly die and drivers, too.
If I had a buck for every sleeping pill those profit-driven execs must consume, I could buy Jay Leno's car collection. I don't see how else they can get through the night--unless they're a different form of human.
In my first business I had dealings with a supplier like Autoliv, the manufacturer who chose to lose a huge contract rather than make a more volatile airbag. Back then I sold roof-sprinkler systems, which relied on solenoid valves. After our supplier made changes to his valves' design, they started failing. You might assume that, as a user, the failed valves would have been basically our problem. But this supplier took it upon himself to replace every single one of them. He essentially went bankrupt in the process, but he did it.
Though what happened was unfortunate for him, it was inspiring to me. I remember thinking at the time: Damn it, that's how you run a business. You don't enter "max profits" into your GPS (OK, this was long before GPS) and drive without regard for the people you bump into en route. You go out of your way to look out for them, whether they're buyers, suppliers, customers or employees, even when it costs you in the short term.
The problem, of course, is that public companies are saddled with profit-hungry shareholders, which inevitably leads to myopic decisions by executives who either can't or choose not to perceive the long-term costs of maximizing profit: lives, lawsuits, fines and overall bad karma.
Big Ass Fans is a private company, so it's easier for us to do the right thing even when it's not the most profitable. For example, we once bought a church new windows after problems with their fan order, not because we broke the old windows but because the church needed them. In that case, making things right cost us nearly $70,000, but we were determined to see the congregation happy.
Every one of our employees learns this and similar stories when they start working here. Why? Because we want to build a company that's staffed by h. sapiens magnanimus--a company that looks out for others because it's in our DNA.