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Thursday, 1 March 2012

Does Ownership Structure Matter In The Long Term?

Thanks to The Foundation for another entertaining Forum last night - this time on whether ownership structure is the only thing that matters for long term growth.

The discussion opened with some insights on ownership from Michael Green of Philanthrocapitalism fame, Luke Mayhew, former managing director of John Lewis (who also chairs the remuneration committees of some large corporations), and the inimitable Anthony Hilton, Financial Editor of the Evening Standard. 

And there was plenty of vibrant discussion about the merits of competing forms of business ownership, whether by employees, shareholders, customers, partners, joint venturers and even benevolent dictators. 

But it was clear that how a business is owned has little to do with long term growth.

Anthony Hilton said it all in his answer to my question whether solving the problems of customers or potential customers mattered more in the long term than ownership structure. He said that customers don't matter at all, as the City has done very well over the past 50 years dreaming up any old product and shoving it down peoples' throats.

To the extent that you believe that this demonstrates long term success, then I would only observe that City firms characterise every form of ownership. So ownership structures themselves have played no particular role in the City's exploitation of its customers.

But of course you might share my view that it would be wrong to judge the City has having done 'very well' with this strategy, as it is hardly in the best of health.

So ownership is just one of many dynamics that a business has to manage. 

If you are looking for the most important dynamic, then I believe it is whether a business is focused on solving its customers' problems, rather than solving its own problems at its customers' expense.

In other words, the key to long term growth is to be a facilitator, rather than an institution.


Image from The Philosopher's Magazine.

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