Where's the Money Going?

Willie Sutton was a man of singular talent: he robbed banks.  Despite his questionable career choice, he was quite successful, and has a powerful lesson for us today. Once, after he was apprehended, Mr. Sutton was asked a penetrating question ­– “why do you rob banks?” 

Money_by_Devon_D'Ewart.jpg“Because that is where the money is,” was his reported reply. Though rather simplistic, the logic of his answer has guided millions of aspiring entrepreneurs both before and since, and is even the basis of “Sutton’s law” which reminds us to first consider the obvious when making a diagnosis. Willie Sutton died in 1980 after notching a life-time haul of just over $2M and netting himself a half-a-lifetime in jail, plus a published memoir – aptly titled Where the Money Was.  Without the penitentiary interludes, Willie might have spirited away as much as $5M in lifetime “earnings” – he seemed to be quite a good bank robber, as far as bank robbers go. But all of Willie Sutton’s ill-gotten gains and outsized legacy seem but a drop in the ocean compared to another stack of money that was recently thrown in an entirely new direction – some $6 trillion USD. For comparison, the world’s third largest economy is Japan, with an estimated 2018 GDP of $4.8 trillion USD.


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“What felled mighty Kodak was not Sony, Canon or even Apple – fierce competitors though they were. Rather, Kodak was brought first to dismissal from the Dow Jones, and then eventually to its knees, not by competitors but its owners, the shareholders. Make no mistake: This was a suicide.”

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"Nothing personal, it's just business"

We may not have done it consciously, but we have the kinds of businesses that we have chosen. Perhaps it is as much by default as by intention, but we have really never asked businesses to behave as we expect other persons to behave – with some meaningful obligations toward the common good, or at least common decency.  For most of us, even expecting business to do anything but “make money” is almost a novel idea, perhaps a little naïve – quaint even. 


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A New Role for Business


In many places, businesses are often associated with exploitation and even bullying behavior.  Some of my friends see businesses as consumed with only one aim – profit – and choose to enter other fields. To a large degree, these observers are probably right. Or at least they have been…until now.  

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Telos and the Turning Tide of Business

As I began my career in business some thirty years ago, I received a bit of wise advice from John Wilson, a former colleague and mentor. “Chris, don’t try to make business nice! It isn’t nice,” he said, “…but it can be good.”  For a long time, with each passing budget decision and strategic priority I saw determined, my skepticism grew against John’s suggestion that business could be “good,” and the idea all but vanished in the haze. Then, five or six years ago, I noticed an unmistakable shift. And like turning tide, this form of organization we know as a business, which for generations has been the primary agent of the ‘shareholder’, began to become more and more an agent of employees and customers to serve their priorities for social impact.


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