The U.S. Presidential election has raised the question of what successful business is. Is a business successful simply because it makes a lot of money? What if the money comes through cheating customers or suppliers? For example, is a rich person who runs a drug cartel a successful businessman? Is someone who becomes rich, at least in part, through tax evasion, a successful businessman?
Business requires trust. I pay money for goods or services because I believe in their value. I trust that what I am paying for is being represented accurately and is priced fairly. Often I shop online, which requires the further trust that the product I can’t see is what it says it is and that it will come to me in a timely fashion. I trust the seller’s promise that I can return anything that doesn’t meet my expectations and that my money will be refunded.
Business requires good relationships. A businessperson develops relationships with suppliers and customers, convincing them that they can craft a win-win relationship. Honesty forms the foundation of these relationships. If a businessperson proves dishonest, suppliers and customers run in the other direction. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Businesses built on trust and good relationships contribute to the social fabric of the larger society. Businesses lacking trust and good relationships tear the social fabric.
So, what is “success” in business? I posit that the answer is not simply “more money.” To be sure, a business must make money in order to survive and thrive. Yet the purpose of business is far more than money. Saying that the purpose of business is making money is like saying that the purpose of life is breathing. Breathing is necessary to life, yet breathing is not the purpose of life. The purpose of life is to love and to give. The purpose of business is similar: to give goods and services that contribute to people’s well-being. A successful business provides useful goods and services, operates with integrity, and thrives.
For example, Wainwright Bank in Boston, under Bob Glassman’s leadership, aspired to become the leader in lending to nonprofits. Naysayers claimed that Wainwright Bank would suffer financially for its idealism, claiming that loans for homeless shelters and food banks are risky business. In fact, the opposite proved true: Wainwright Bank’s community development loans totaling over $700 million experienced zero losses during the time of Bob Glassman’s leadership, in sharp contrast to other banks’ loan portfolios. I posit that Bob Glassman is an outstanding example of a successful businessman, making money and serving people in his community at the same time.
Instead of evaluating the merit of a business solely on its money-making capabilities, let us hold a higher standard for businesses. Let us assess the value of a business not only through its financial success but through its ability to serve the community, to contribute to the well-being of the world. Our time here on earth is precious, as is our opportunity to create legacies for future generations. May the businesses we create not only thrive but also embody the highest ideals of our humanity.