The Price of Being Outspoken
While retail execs appear to periodically draw the ire of activists for funding certain political or religious causes, few have been as outspoken recently as Jim Sinegal, Costco’s co-founder and former CEO, and Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s president and COO.
On the political front, Mr. Sinegal, who retired as Costco’s longtime CEO in January 2012 but remains a director and a significant shareholder, spoke Wednesday night in a prime-time coverage spot (10:00 p.m.) at the Democratic National Convention, just three speakers away from the headliner, former President Bill Clinton. In an interview with CNBC, Mr. Sinegal said he planned to directly address whether Americans are better off today than when President Obama took office, citing economic and private sector job growth and emphasizing the conditions at the time Mr. Obama’s administration took office.
Retail Today’s coverage of the expected speech noted that Mr. Sinegal’s support of President Obama very likely conflicts with views of a majority of Costco members, who tend to be small business owners or higher-income households.
Asked whether he would be speaking if he was still CEO, Mr. Sinegal admitted he wasn’t sure. He said, "I think as a business person I don’t have to abdicate my citizenship. So that’s an interesting question. I don’t have to make that decision from that vantage point. But I think perhaps I might."
Mr. Sinegal’s comments came after Tom Stemberg, co-founder of Staples Inc. (SPLS), spoke at last week at the Republican National Convention.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cathy, the son of the fast food chain’s founder and a devout Southern Baptist, stirred up a firestorm in July after he told a religious magazine that he opposed gay marriage.
The Atlanta-based chain is known in its core markets in the South for its strong religious beliefs, even staying closed on Sundays. But after the comments went viral, political leaders in Boston, San Francisco and New York City stated that the restaurants were not welcome in their cities and calls for a boycott rang out. On the other side, religious leaders and social conservatives stuck up for Mr. Cathy’s First Amendment rights. Protests as well as calls for support continued through early August.
The controversy was not expected to impact Chick-fil-A’s business in its core markets where many customers back the chain’s religious beliefs, but it may impact expansion plans.
"Most brands really stay out of a lot of the big issues that polarize people. So when you see companies take a stand on certain things, they usually do so for causes that are broadly acceptable, such as Starbucks and job creation or Patagonia and the environment," Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, told The Christian Science Monitor. "So what’s really unique about this situation is that Chick-fil-A has gotten itself right in the middle of one of the controversial issues of the country."
- Is the US Better Off? Costco Co-Founder Says Yes – CNBC
- Costco founder’s politics at odds with members’ – Retailing Today
- Costco’s Sinegal in spotlight at Democratic convention tonight – Seattle Times
- Costco Founder Says Obama Better for Business Than Romney – Bloomberg News
- Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal praises Obama’s business side – Seattle Times
- Staples founder Tom Stemberg starred at GOP convention – Boston Globe
- Chick-fil-A: Will the controversy hurt chain’s expansion plans? – Christian Science Monitor
- Chick-fil-A Thrust Back Into Spotlight on Gay Rights – The New York Times
Do consumers care about retail executive’s political or religious views? How outspoken should retail executives be?