The endless poorly presented PowerPoint presentations; the dull speeches given by people who don’t know how to give a public address; the ungodly early starts; the watery tasteless coffee; the inane questions from the floor that take ages and turn out not to be questions after all but meandering rambles. We’ve all been there. As a journalist at more conferences than you can shake a stick at, I’ve very low expectations.
But sometimes even my jaded weariness gets jolted awake. Last week I sat at the back of the Social Stock Exchange’s (SSX) Investor Conference at the unlikely-sounding Dutch Hall in London. I know full well that jaundiced readers will think – “he has to write nice things; after all, he’s writing on the Social Stock Exchange’s website” – but honestly, I was glad to be there. Not that the coffee was great; but the speakers were. They had something to say; and they said it well. I don’t have room to give more than a flavour – and you don’t have time or patience to read more than that. But that flavour might be enough to set the juices flowing.
For one thing there was some positive good news. Tomás Carruthers, CEO of the SSX, opened proceedings by reporting that the exchange has doubled in size in 2015; naturally as clubs get bigger, more people want to become members. The first keynote speaker – Sir Ian Cheshire, Kingfisher’s former CEO and now chairman of Menhaden Capital – didn’t do the obvious thing and spout about how wonderful impact investing is. Instead he gave a succinct and clear exposition of what he considers to be the major barriers impeding the faster spread of impact investing. Corporations, he said, “have to do something to create shareholder value”; that’s their long-standing self-assumed function. But he then warned that “companies that do marginally less evil are not going to be sustainable.” Wow! A former head of a big corporate gets the message. He hit the nail on the head when he said that “there is no pricing mechanism for sustainability showing up in [a company’s] share price…there’s no easy solution to that.” Companies and their shareholders need to be educated to “think about lifetime value.” He identified a problem with pension funds, which are intended to take a 30 year view of their investments but are bedevilled by quarterly or even monthly reporting – the UK has “got it wrong in the way we have set up pension funds.”
The first panel – ably moderated by Dorothy Maxwell, director of the Sustainable Business Group – had an unusually impressive line-up but two speakers really caught my attention. John Elkington, chairman of the Social Stock Exchange’s Admissions Panel, and executive chairman of Volans Ventures, and Iain Richards, head of responsible investment with Columbia Threadneedle Investments, delivered healthy reminders of what stands in the way of more rapidly evolving impact investments. Elkington pithily reminded the audience that “we are still at the Stone Age for some of the measurements of some of these impact investments” while Richards, a money manager and therefore at the sharpest edge, expressed a weariness at the number of competing and overlapping acronyms in this sphere: “they are the product of a really great concept but they have lost their way.” For Richards, there has been “a growth in funds but the allocation of capital behind it is slow”. Unsurprisingly, the recent Volkswagen debacle was on all minds, and Richards highlighted the core problem, relating it to VW: “How to change an industry? How to bring about changes in business products? How am I going to invest my money in ways that will change the business practice? The levels of disintermediation that have crept into the system…a lot of people care about these issues but feel it’s too difficult to get information about how their money is being used.”
Elkington identified perhaps the heart of the problem facing impact investing – our culture. Today we still have a culture where the bigger your title, the more you get, even if it all goes pear-shaped. “The CEO of VW walked away with €69 million, God help us. Incentives drive cultures in a very powerful way. We have got to have stamina with impact investment, we’ve got to keep the conversation going. This is a period of experimentation – the B Corps movement is about demonstration projects for a new way of doing things. Our business schools are incubators of thinking and many business schools still don’t get it – we need to spend the next 10 years turning them upside down.”
There is an array of new developments out there and, thank goodness, a new generation emerging that cares enough about the kinds of incentives – not just money – that we need. And although, as Elkington reminded us, “there is a huge number of CEOs who are still unreconstructed”, that too is changing. When I first started journalism a highly experienced older guy told me that the greatest asset required was tenacity. That’s what’s needed for this quiet revolution to succeed, too.
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