We know from an infamous Supreme Court ruling that corporations are people. They may be heartless, like the pharmaceutical company that jacks up the price of a lifesaving drug. Or clueless, like Pepsi with its latest ad solving racism by having a fashion model give a can of colored sugar water to a cop.
But can a corporation also have a soul? If the answer is yes, that soul passed on to higher ground a few days ago, when Mary Anderson, a co-founder of the outdoor retailer REI, died at the age of 107.
The wonder is not that she lived to triple digits. She loved clean air, a good fight and a well-told joke. The wonder is that someone born in 1909, when many veterans of the Civil War were still arguing over slavery, could live to see her common-sensical values flourish in an otherwise unrecognizable brave new world.
The corporations of 2017 that strive to do well while doing good, the ones that want to step up as global citizens while the Trump administration steps back, owe a part of their enlightened self-interest to Mary Anderson.
She was the longest-standing member of REI, formerly called Recreational Equipment Inc., the company she founded with her husband, Lloyd Anderson, in 1938. Initially, they ran the operation out of the home they built in West Seattle. Their attic was the warehouse. Their kitchen was where Mary stitched together tents. From that farmhouse grew an empire of goose down and freeze-dried fettuccine.
I interviewed this founding couple a few years before Lloyd Anderson died in 2000, at the age of 98. Mary started out as a public-school teacher. Lloyd was a city transit worker. They loved the mountains. But they were frustrated that you couldn’t buy decent climbing gear without getting gouged.
And so they started importing ice axes from Austria, selling them to fellow climbers at cost. The first 23 members contributed $1 each. This was in the 1930s, the Great Depression, and also the height of the cooperative movement. The Pacific Northwest was full of Scandinavians who didn’t think consumer-owned companies were communist plots. Seattle’s public power utility, City Light, and a medical cooperative, Group Health, grew from the same soil.
And maybe one day, if Medicare-for-all emerges as the obvious solution to our dysfunctional and incomprehensible health care system, we’ll see a little bit of the co-op spirit there as well.
The Andersons instilled their company with an unusual business ethic.
“I never thought a man should make money off his friends,” as Lloyd said.
To this day, REI is not a corporation in the normal sense of the word. It’s a consumer cooperative — the nation’s largest — owned not by shareholders, but by members. There are more than 6 million active members, and Mary Anderson, officially, was member No. 2.
While other retailers are struggling, REI is thriving. With more than 140 stores in 36 states, the company just recorded record revenue of $2.56 billion for 2016. It fell astray at times. As it grew into a national behemoth, the company forced the Andersons out of their role in guiding REI’s operations.
But the Anderson influence remained. REI now gives back more than 70 percent of its profits to the outdoor community and other worthwhile projects. One of the company’s biggest initiatives this year is an effort to boost the profile of future Mary Andersons — women who love nature — to change the image of male-dominated outdoor sports.
A few years ago on Black Friday, that horrid stampede of Christmas season greed, REI did something revolutionary — it closed. Employees were given a paid day off and told to take a hike or spend some time with family.
Corporations behaving badly tend to get most of our attention. It will take years for Wells Fargo to dig itself out of the fiasco it created with customers who were burdened with accounts they didn’t authorize. Volkswagen, once known for the little Beetle that was many a baby boomer’s first car, stumbled badly when it rolled out autos that could cheat emissions tests. And Fox News, with its numerous sexual harassment settlements, is beginning to look more and more like a criminal enterprise.
On the other hand, you have Patagonia, another outdoor retailer, pulling out of the annual industry show in Utah this year to protest the state’s hostility toward the public land that the company’s customers depend on.
Business schools study this sort of thing — how to achieve a branding of authenticity, how to be seen as a corporation with a conscience. But it’s not that complicated.
“In founding REI as a co-op, Lloyd and Mary saw a higher purpose in their work,” said Sally Jewell, an interior secretary under President Barack Obama and a former chief executive officer of REI. The Andersons proved that a higher purpose with a solid bottom line does not have to be an oxymoron.
Timothy Egan writes for The New York Times.