Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip and the “good jobs strategy”

zton_book-257x300As the issue of income inequality takes center stage in Washington, creating risks to the reputations of some of America’s biggest employers, such as Walmart and McDonald’s, Zeynep Ton’s new book, The Good Jobs Strategy, could not be more timely.

Ton, who teaches at MIT’s business school, argues that smart companies invest in their employees, who provide superior service to customers, who become loyal, thus generating profits and shareholder returns. What’s more, she says, this strategy works in the brutally competitive, low margin retail industry, at such companies as Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip and the big Spanish retailer Mercadona.

I met Zeynep Ton last week at the Hitachi Foundation in Washington, and wrote about her book, and her ideas, today in Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

About 46 million Americans, or 15% of the population, live below the poverty line, and about 10.4 million of them are the working poor. They bag groceries at Walmart or Target, take your order at McDonald’s or Burger King, care for the sick, the elderly or the young.

Conventional wisdom says that’s unavoidable: to stay competitive, keep prices low and maximize profits, companies, particularly in the retail and service industries, need to squeeze their workers. But in a provocative new book, The Good Jobs Strategy, author and teacher Zeynep Ton argues that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Instead, she says, smart companies invest in their employees, and they do so to lower costs and increase profits.

Of course, the idea that companies need to properly reward their key employees is hardly radical. That’s how business works on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, where the competition for talent is fierce. But Ton, who teaches at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says that a good jobs strategy can also work in retail. In fact, she makes her case after a close study of four mass-market retailers who invest in their employees, keep costs low and deliver superior shareholder returns.

“It’s not the case that success comes from cutting labor costs,” Ton says. “Success can come from investing in people.” What’s more, she says, executives need to understand that that treating workers well “does not depend on charging customers more”.

You can read the rest here.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I’m inclined to agree with Ton. Ten years ago, in my own book, Faith and Fortune, I reported on companies like Southwest Airlines, Starbucks and UPS that pursue their own version of a “good jobs strategy.” To her credit, Ton has shown that the strategy works in retail, and that it can actually help drive prices lower–a potentially valuable lesson for companies like Walmart and McDonald’s.

Zeynep Ton

Zeynep Ton

That said, her book raises a question that is hard, at least for me, to answer: If the good jobs strategy is so good, why don’t more companies embrace it? For that matter, why haven’t those companies that treat their employees well trounced their competitors? In theory, the companies that practice a “good jobs strategy” should be able to attract the best people, deliver the best customer service and force their rivals to copy them or suffer. That’s the way markets are supposed to work.

I put this question to Ton and she offered two answers. First, markets are imperfect. Second, the “good jobs strategy” is hard to execute because it requires redesigning workplaces, providing lots of training, finding the right balance between standardizing tasks and empowering employees, and so forth. Maybe. But I suspect there are other reasons why the “good jobs strategy” has not swept across America. Your thoughts are most welcome.

A mycological business that’s growing strong

Midway through their final semester at UC Berkeley, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez were getting ready for life in the corporate world. Despite the sluggish economy–this was the spring of 2009–they had attractive jobs lined up, Nikhil as a consultant at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Alex as a banker at Credit Suisse.

So what did they do? They chucked the job offers and began to grow mushrooms out of coffee grounds.

Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora

Two years later, they have no regrets. Their startup, called Back to the Roots, is literally a growth company: It sells mushroom kits that enable people to grow and harvest up to 1 1/2 lbs of gourmet oyster mushrooms in as little as 10 days, out of a cardboard box filled with used coffee grounds. Out of the box thinking, you could call it. [click to continue…]