A roll-call of commercial vilification
AMERICA loves a winner. Almost every business magazine and trade publication compiles its annual list of the fastest-growing or the finest-managed or the farthest-seeing companies in its universe. But what happens at the other end of the scale? Which are America's most hated companies, and why? None claims the title publicly, yet some must deserve it. This deeply unscientific stab at an answer relies mainly on a searching of databases, a trolling of blogs, and conversations with business-school professors across the country. Polling and focus-group data have been sought but not always obtained. "Our clients would so like not to be included in this project", explained one corporate-reputation consultant. Any conclusions which may inadvertently be reached should be viewed as provisional, anecdotal and, above all, not actionable.
James Hoopes, a professor of business ethics at Babson College in Massachusetts, suggests reaching back to the end of the 18th century for the first enterprise to provoke public loathing. That, he says, would be the First Bank of the United States, founded in 1791, which did the work of a central bank even though private investors held most of its shares. Jeffersonians denounced it as an unconstitutional victory of commerce over farming. Refounded in 1816 as the Second Bank of the United States, it over-lent wildly and then called in its money, sparking financial panic. President Andrew Jackson ended its special status in 1836. Five years later, as an ordinary commercial bank, it went bust.
That was a true one-off. Big business in a rough-edged version of its modern form arrived with the robber barons of the late 19th century. That era's most-hated company, though by no means the worst of them, was Standard Oil, a monopoly founded by John D. Rockefeller in the 1870s, and finally broken up by court order in 1911. Standard Oil was America's "first and reigning champion of public wrath", says George David Smith, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business.
To corner the market in infamy (as well as in refining capacity) might seem a harsh fate for a company that was not particularly malevolent by the exacting standards of its time, and really quite laudable in an historical perspective. (For a bona fide bad-hat, Jay Gould was probably the top contender, see page 97.) The efficiencies and economies of scale achieved by Standard Oil helped the whole world to industrialise and grow richer. The firm's success may well have left all Americans better off, save for the competitors that it drove out of business.
But still Americans chafed at it, says Mr Smith, because "Throughout our history we don't mind that people become rich but we do mind that people become powerful. Standard Oil had the first real problem with that among public companies." Rockefeller's empire became, says Mr Smith, "a proxy for everything that Americans feared—and what they feared was a concentration of power."
Here Americans diverged sharply from Europeans, who have been much more comfortable with concentrations of power manifested in big government and nationalised industries. Where Americans fret about trusts and combinations that stifle future winners, Europeans fret about unbridled competition that guarantees future losers.
To be fair on Standard Oil, it could also be a pretty nasty operator when it chose. Rockefeller conspired with railway companies to ensure that his rivals would pay much higher freight charges than he did, and that their payments would secretly cross-subsidise discounts for Standard Oil. That cost disadvantage left independent refiners with a choice between going bust over time, or selling out to Standard Oil for the scrap value of their plant. And the more Standard Oil grew, the more people's feet it stepped on. If it cut prices, competitors complained about unfair competition. If it raised prices, consumers complained about gouging. A top Standard Oil manager, William Warden, wrote in 1887 that the firm, albeit "a success unparalleled in commercial history", was viewed almost everywhere as "the representative of all that is evil, hard hearted, oppressive [and] cruel."
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 spread its shock and misery so indiscriminately that no one corporation could be held accountable for it—though National City Bank, and its president, Charles Mitchell, did more than their share of running the market up. The system took the blame, as it did for the depression which followed in the 1930s. The 1940s and 1950s were golden decades for big business, when America's leading companies basked in the admiration of a diligent public. Prosperity was advancing more evenly across society, and no industrial revolution intervened to create a provocative new monopoly in a leading industry, in the manner of Standard Oil and, later, Microsoft.
Hostilities between business and society resumed in the 1960s with the Vietnam War and the rise of rebellious baby-boomers. Student demonstrators marched against many things that decade, but rarely as often as they did against Dow Chemical, maker of napalm and Agent Orange. Dow was on its way to earning a lifetime achievement award for the courting of controversy. In the 1980s and 1990s the silicone breast implants which it produced jointly with Corning, a glass company, gave rise to an unfounded public health scare and class-action suits costing up to $3.2 billion. In 2001 Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide, operator of a plant at Bhopal in India, where a leak of toxic chemicals in 1984 produced the biggest industrial disaster of modern times. If Dow Chemical did not find itself in the headlines from time to time, that was scarcely for want of trying.
Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s the American public went sour on a whole industry: big tobacco. Fair enough, many would say. "If you are killing people, it doesn't matter whether you are creating shareholder value, you are still bad," observes Mason Carpenter, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business. Yet the American public has gone on liking alcohol companies and, for the most part, fast-food companies, even though their products also ruin many people's heath. The key difference, probably, was the growing belief in the dishonesty of tobacco firms. The industry had fought off private lawsuits for 30 years by insisting, in effect, that it knew no more about the hazards of smoking than anybody else did. But as scientific evidence mounted and company documents were leaked, the public lost faith. Now, "probably everybody thinks of tobacco companies as being intrinsically bad," says Stern's Mr Smith.
Set against big tobacco, Microsoft looks positively benign. And, in every significant way, it is. Its frequent designation as a most-hated company from the late-1980s onward always owed more to the quality than to the quantity of its critics—computer users with infinite scope to air their views through e-mail and the internet. Probably never was a company insulted so ingeniously and elaborately. Type "hate Bill Gates" into Google even now, and you will probably get over 15,000 hits. Type "love Bill Gates", and on a good day (for Mr Gates) you may get 2,000.
The ubiquity of Microsoft's operating system was frustrating enough for consumers accustomed to exercising choice elsewhere in their lives. The company made things worse by managing its ruthlessness clumsily, trying to conquer every other software and internet market worth having. But the verdict of history will be kind. By popularising and standardising personal computing, Microsoft laid the foundations of an industrial and technological revolution too big for any one company to control. Most Americans applauded this achievement, even while the federal government was trying to break up Microsoft (see chart).
But enough of even-handed judgments. The end of the 1990s brought a company with nothing to be said for it whatsoever. Few would dispute Enron's right to the title of America's most-hated company, at least since Standard Oil. Nominally an energy company, Enron filed for bankruptcy in 2001 after inflating its balance sheet with so many dodgy asset-financing deals that nobody outside the boardroom understood quite what it was doing other than misusing shareholders' money. "Basically bandits", says Mr Carpenter. "There is a BS factor there that makes people feel very strongly negative," says David Kirsch, a professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "An authentic emblem of corporate corruption, and will remain so another hundred years from now," according to Stern's Mr Smith.
Much the same might be said of WorldCom, a telecoms firm which combined the worst features of the dot-com boom with those of an Enron-style accounting scandal. After declaring bankruptcy, Worldcom was reborn as MCI, then bought in 2005 by Verizon, another big telecom firm. Its former boss, Bernie Ebbers, was jailed for 25 years.
A straw poll by Fred Bateman, a professor of economics at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business, brings us to the present. He asked three classes in economics, about 100 students in all, which company they thought was the most hated in America. They almost all said Wal-Mart.
And, in its darker moments, Wal-Mart might almost half-agree. For the past two or three years it has endured spikes of public hostility provoked by labour unions that want to organise in its stores, communities that want to shut it out to safeguard local commerce, and by periodic rows over claims that Wal-Mart was using illegal immigrants as cleaners, paying its staff so little that they relied on welfare benefits, and systematically underpaying female workers. Having tried at first to stare down its critics, Wal-Mart has moved in the past year to recruit a high-powered team of lobbyists and consultants, including former advisers to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, to manage its image and interests more actively.
As with Microsoft, Wal-Mart is loved at least as much as it is hated, often by the same people. You can hate its market power while loving its low prices, though these are two sides of the same coin. "What they do, they do really well," says Mr Kirsch, "and they share the benefits. If they can get a thing 10% cheaper, then 5% goes to the shareholders and 5% to the customers. It's that simple. But we get back to the inherent problem of size. Big boxes in small towns. When you get very big you are bound to do things that will piss people off."
Any trot this brisk through a century of pissed-off people will risk neglecting many corporate reputations worthy of separate discussion—Manville, McDonalds and Martha Stewart, for example, to pause only at the Ms. But still, a few general truths emerge. The main one is that Americans are generally accepting of big business, but only so long as they feel in control of it, as citizens or as consumers. They lose that sense when a company wins a monopoly for its products, or when it comes busting into a community and displacing local commerce, or when its officers break the law. When that happens, they are disproportionately shocked and hostile, because they see it as a violation both of the natural order of things, and of their trust. But so long as that does not happen, business can get on with its job of making and selling things, almost whatever they may be. Americans are not unduly excited about arms makers, for example, or sellers of genetically modified crops. Monsanto may be the most-hated American company in Europe, but it is scarcely noticed in America.
Where is public hostility turning next? Big oil is one target. Unlike in Europe, where governments get most of the blame for high petrol prices, because taxes account for so much of the final cost, the American public holds oil firms mainly responsible (see chart on previous page). No surprise, then, that while oil prices have been soaring in 2005, esteem for oil companies has been plummeting. A Gallup poll in August found that 42% of Americans disliked the oil industry, including 35% who disliked it very much indeed. Plus ça change, as John D. Rockefeller might say.