Lessons from Emmanuel Faber’s departure from Danone


On 26th June 2020 99% of the shareholders in Danone voted for it to become an enterprise à mission, or purpose driven company, required not only to generate profit for its shareholders, but do so in a way that it says will benefit its customers’ health and the planet.

Less than nine months later, Emmanuel Faber, Danone’s chief executive and the architect of the new strategy, was ejected by the board in the face of pressure from activist investors.  The FT leader writer observed on 18th March that “a backlash against purpose-driven capitalism was overdue” and that the debacle was “a reminder that distractions from the core goal of making a profit can be dangerous” before concluding that it did “not …. signal that leaders should rein in their ambition to go further and reassert the role of companies in society” and that to “revert now to simplistic and damaging pursuit of crude share-price maximisation would be a mistake.”

The ejection of Faber was not an illustration of the primacy of Friedmanite shareholder value, but an example of a chief executive failure to manage the investor market interface.  We don’t know precisely what the activist investors were thinking, but they were clearly dissatisfied with the returns they were expecting and believed that their investment returns would be increased with a different chief executive.

Under Faber’s successor, the activist investors hope that the value of their investment (in terms of capital growth and dividend returns) will increase as a result of improved internal operational performance and a changed strategy towards the customers at its other market interfaces – including suppliers, employees, consumers, owners of real estate and local communities, regulators, and government (recalling the appetite of the French government to view large domestic consumer businesses as strategic national assets when threatened by acquisition by overseas multinationals).  The choices of the different types of customer will include some consideration of ESG: consumers with an eye to environmental consideration (packaging, use of sustainable resources; employees preferring to work for companies whose conduct they can take pride in; investors wanting to see good governance.  The rhetoric employed by the activist investment customers may reflect discontent with financial returns, but implicitly they are concerned with how the Danone’s mission is translated into strategy and the possibility that Faber’s rhetoric around purpose conceals a lack of grip on operational performance.

The Danone debacle generated further commentary on whether this apparent backlash represented a retreat from “purposeful capitalism”.  John Plender wrote a powerful article for the FT on 4th April reflecting both on the Danone story and on the lessons from the Covid about the impact on stakeholders (particularly suppliers) who were unable to diversify  their risk (unlike investors) when a business hit rocks as the pandemic closed down parts of the economy.  He shared the view, which we addressed during the debate in 2017 on corporate governance reform in the UK, that appointing employee directors (or by implication directors representing any other specific stakeholder group) does not address the governance gaps.  He went on to argue for changes to the incentive models for senior managers to address short-termism and that profit or share value metrics determining them should be supplemented by ESG related metrics.  In short, “stakeholder capitalism must find ways to hold management to account” and that “the prevailing commitment to short-termist shareholder value has undermined corporate resilience.”

Hakan Jankensgard, Associate Professor of Corporate Finance at Lund University responded to Plender in a letter published by the FT on 7th April with an assertion that the firms should adopt the Hippocratic oath since this “would ensure that firms act as good corporate citizens”, with focus on long term profitability and “not become do-gooders picking sides in social debates”.  It is probably a reflection of the challenge of drafting a letter of appropriate length for publication, but some steps in his logic seems to missing.  However, other parts of his letter are compelling, echo arguments within the Escondido Framework view on how firms work and pitfalls in contemporary corporate governance, and are worth producing in full:

“As far as everyone is concerned, shareholders are the root cause of all the troubles afflicting our societies.

“Well, think again.  The real problem today is managerial capitalism – that managers run firms primarily to increase their own wealth and prestige.  A few decades back, managers were busy building wasteful empires, and the shareholder model arrived as a particular remedy for this gross inefficiency.

“Another innovation that arrive about the same time prove more fateful.  It was the idea that managers, if given the right financial incentives, would rediscover their entrepreneurial spirt. It caught on, to say the least.  What it really did, however, was to shift managers’ focus from building empires to extracting wealth through compensation packages.

“As manager took n their new role, they found willing accomplices in a cabal of short-term oriented investors looking for a quick return.  This unfortunate marriage is the problem at the heart of today’s economy as it creates short-termism that adds to long-term risk.”