JUNE 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 6
C O R P O R A T E P R O F I L E
Profiling The Corporate Profilers
by Robert Weissman
Most people are not aware of even the most basic business- related facts. How many know that Johnson Wax manufactures Raid insecticide? Or that Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken are all owned by Pepsico? Or that General Electric no longer produces small appliances of any kind and makes more money on its finance operations (including the investment firm Kidder, Peabody) than any other component of the company? This sort of information is essential to understanding how and whether to launch consumer boycotts or other actions against egregious companies.
Given the low level of public awareness, any book, such as Gary Hoover, Alta Campbell and Patrick Spain's Hoover's Handbook, Milton Moskowitz, Robert Levering and Michael Katz's Everybody's Business or Philip Mattera's Inside U.S. Business, which attempts to shed light on the activities of big business, should be welcomed. All three of these books are written accessibly, for the general audience. Hoover's Handbook and Everybody's Business provide profiles of the largest U.S. companies, as well as some foreign ones, and Inside U.S. Business offers profiles of industries in the United States.
To really demystify the operations of corporations, company or industry profiles must provide more than standard business information about firm size, product lines and stock performance. Companies affect the public in many ways not noted in traditional business data, by despoiling the environment, exploiting workers, selling unsafe products. The three books vary significantly in the extent to which they evaluate the non-commercial aspects of corporations. All of them, unfortunately, have the significant shortcoming of largely ignoring the effects of multinational corporations on the Third World, where the negative impact of global commerce is disproportionately felt.
Hoover's Handbook provides the least information on the social, environmental and labor aspects of major corporations. The authors address these topics only in instances where a corporation's misdeeds have won it great notoriety, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Du Pont's production of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the Eastern Airlines labor strike. And even these cases are discussed only in the context of how they have affected the company's business outlook.
The book profiles more than 500 businesses, as well as a few non-business "enterprises," some of which are useful additions (e.g., the AFL-CIO, a few large universities) and some of which are overly general and detract from the work as a whole (e.g., the United States, the state of California).
Each company profile is one page long and contains a brief overview, a short history, a listing of the company's top officers and their salaries, the proportion of business done in the United States and overseas, a breakdown of the company's income by subsidiary or line of business, rankings in the Fortune 500 and elsewhere, competitor companies and a variety of stock-related information. The stock-related information tracks the sales, net income, stock prices and dividends per share of each company over the last decade. It is probably the most useful information in the Hoover's Handbook profiles.
Everybody's Business is both more thorough and more critical of companies than Hoover's Handbook. It profiles 400 of the largest U.S. corporations, providing market rankings in various products, sales and profits, a company history, a short profile of top officers, an evaluation of the company as a place to work, an analysis of the company's social responsibility and listings of global presence, stock performance and consumer brands. The book is written with humor and wit, making the profiles enjoyable reading.
The 1990 edition of Everybody's Business has undergone some changes from the previous, 1980 edition, and not all of them are improvements. The current version is almost 200 pages shorter than the original, with the length of the profiles and particularly the company histories cut. More significantly, the current version tones down its criticism of big business. The shift is demonstrated clearly by the contrasting subtitles; 1980's "The Irreverent Guide to Corporate America" was changed to "A Field Guide to the 400 Leading Companies in America" in the 1990 edition.
While the current version does include sections on corporate social responsibility, they are unsatisfactory. For example, in the discussion of Du Pont and CFCs, the authors give credence to Du Pont's assertion that it was willing to stop CFC production as soon as "scientists could demonstrate CFCs were harmful to public health." They write, "That moment came on March 24, 1988, when Du Pont, reacting to a new study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration panel, said they would phase out production of CFCs by the century's end." This account fails to mention the significant evidence on the dangers of CFCs that had accumulated before Du Pont announced its phase-out, the strategy used by Du Pont and other CFC producers of calling for ever more studies on the effects of CFCs even as they failed to support serious research and the reasonable argument that, given the planetary stakes, uncertainty should have led to a phase-out rather than continued production. Nor do the authors report on the company's current efforts to market "HCFCs," a different type of CFCs than those traditionally used in manufacturing and another ozone-depleter.
Many other companies--including recipients of Multinational Monitor's "10 Worst Corporations" awards, such as Aetna Life and Casualty, Monsanto, General Motors and Mobil--receive gentle treatment as well. One of the Monitor's 10 Worst Corporations of 1990, ARCO (Multinational Monitor, December 1990), is even given special mention in Everybody's Business as an "outstanding corporate citizen."
Everybody's Business's discussion of labor issues is also disappointing. Because the authors evaluate companies "as a place to work," they tend to focus on descriptions of the work atmosphere such as "stuffy," "comfortable" and "stressful." In a significant number of cases they do address workplace safety, plant closings and companies' relationship with unions, but in too many instances they do not.
Inside U.S. Business differs from Hoover's Handbook and Everybody's Business in that it profiles industries rather than companies. There are some disadvantages to this--some of the details about companies as well as company-specific anecdotes are lost--but some significant benefits as well. This format allows the author, Philip Mattera to show, without redundancy, the trends that have affected and molded entire industries.
Each industry profile in Inside U.S. Business outlines the history and current status of an industry, ranks its tops companies, provides short profiles of leading corporations and reviews the industry's labor relations. Each profile includes an excellent resource guide to books, reports and trade journals on, and analysts of, the industry, as well as relevant trade groups, unions and public interest organizations.
Inside U.S. Business's discussion of labor relations is much better than those of Hoover's Handbook and Everybody's Business, perhaps reflecting Mattera's affiliation with Corporate Campaign, Inc., a labor consulting firm. The book does an excellent job of summarizing in a relatively small space the past and current state of labor relations, both in industries which are largely unionized and those which are not. The profiles note labor conflicts, national and local, and mention not only established unions but unsuccessful organizing drives and dissident movements within unions.
Inside U.S. Business also does a better job of discussing other social issues, such as the environment. Its profile of the auto industry, for example, includes comments on auto pollution and the effect of fuel efficiency standards on the automakers. These subjects are absent from Hoover's Handbook and Everybody's Business, in part because those volumes concentrate on companies rather than industries and in part because they devote less attention to environmental issues.
If the prerequisite to taming corporate power is making information about business accessible, these three books are important tools. Though they vary in detail, focus and critical edge, Hoover's Handbook, Everybody's Business and Inside U.S. Business are all reference guides which provide useful data, history and commentary on many of the dominant players in the world economy.