09 March 2009

Talking Edge: Baffling times

Written by Kam Raslan

Dear Kam,

The New York stock exchange index has gone below 7,000. Should I get back into the market?

Looking Up
via email

I know The Edge is a business paper but I feel I must be honest and tell you that I don’t trust business, and I certainly don’t trust stocks. I’ve always kept quiet about my lack of faith in business because things were going so well but now that business (and banks in particular) has led the whole world into an economic meltdown, I feel I can come clean. I don’t trust business.

It has been a very, very long time since I watched the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange. I am untutored in the ways of business but I’ve been told that publicly traded companies have an ultimate responsibility to their stockholders. This has always struck me as being rubbish. Who on earth cares about the nameless, faceless stockholder? And why should anyone care? Stockholders are just in it for the ride and they should be grateful for the sandwiches and crappy coffee at the AGM. They neither care nor know about the inner workings of a company. They just want the money. The company could make nappies or Agent Orange, it’s all the same, just tell me what the dividends are. Saying the stockholders are important is just hot air.

Personally, I believe a company has an ultimate responsibility to its products and customers, and to a lesser degree its employees. Having spent some years in advertising, I grew used to fixating on a product, filming it from every possible angle and trying to make something mundane seem like the most desirable thing in the world. I quickly became aware that a product either leapt out and didn’t even need to be sold, or that we were flogging a dead horse (the non-halal version would be “Putting lipstick on a pig”). Of course advertising is about making that dead horse look like My Little Pony, but sometimes it is truly dead.

Companies should concentrate on making responsible products that the market wants and needs, or engineering the market to want the product it didn’t know it needed. Instead, the global meltdown has shown us that companies operate for the benefit of the bosses. There are far too many examples of the bosses giving themselves huge salaries and benefits without really concentrating on what they are selling. This sends the message to employees that everyone is in it for themselves, grab what you can, stab whomever you have to, just show me the money!

An employee needs to have an emotional connection to the product, even if it’s only a light bulb. They need to be well paid but they also need to know that it’s the best light bulb in the whole world. If the product is crap or if the bosses are giving themselves all the money, why should anyone care? With this global meltdown, the bosses should be publicly cutting their salaries and intimately reacquainting themselves and their staff with the product. They won’t, but they should. But, then again, what do I know.

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia on 9 March 2009.

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