Duopoly Talk With CEOs at Davos

March 11, 2013 in Business

I was invited to attend some of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. I asked myself, “If I am going to have a few minutes of conversation with many of the top CEOs in the world, what would be a valuable use of that time?” I instantly knew the answer. I ended up sharing the following thoughts with over twenty CEOs, major economists, and major business college presidents. Here are the names of some of them you may recognize: Mike Duke, CEO of Walmart; Jamie Dimon, CEO of J P Morgan; Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi; Former US Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers; Muhammad Yunus, Founder of Grameen Bank and Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; Wendell Brown, CEO of Appeo and Silicon Valley entrepreneur; Ray Schwarez, video journalist with PBS; Jack DeJoia, President of Georgetown University; David Gergan, Consultant to US Presidents; Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University; Kenneth Rogoff, economist at Harvard University; Joseph Stieglitz, economist; and Bing Yiang, President of the largest business school in China.

I first said, “I would like to share an idea with you,” so they knew I had a whole thought I wanted to share. Secondly I said, “As we all know, the highest priority of multinational corporations is to become number one or two in each product market.” They all indicated in some way that they knew this was true (a monopoly is illegal but a duopoly is legal). What was important about saying this is that it revealed that I was part of this conversation within that community, a conversation they usually avoid bringing up with the public or press. I was then experienced as on the inside team, not against them. The duopolization of our economy, where two companies control a large percentage of a product market, is all around you; but up to now you may not have given it much attention: Home-Depot-Lowes, CVS-Walgreens, Airbus-Boeing, Anheuser Bush-Inbev-Miller Coors, Kelloggs-General Mills, and many others.

Next I stated, “This will only become more extensive and at some point the public will become aware of it. The political left will then call it a monopoly with another face. The question will then become, ‘How do duopolies protect their duopolies?’”

This question was always met with silence and keen attention to what I would say next. Solely in my judgment from the expressions on their faces, I do not think any of them had ever asked themselves this question. This is understandable. All the merger and acquisition activity has been fully focused on becoming a duopoly in each product market and not bringing attention to it.

I then continued, “There is only one thing the public will respect: the two companies will need to voluntarily reach agreements to raise the level labor, environmental, and social playing field while continuing to compete as their secondary priority.” Every person, and this is not an exaggeration, nodded or expressed some words affirming complete agreement with that answer to the question. I had not only provided the logical and natural answer to the question but it was also a positive for the duopolies. So there was clearly nothing to dislike.

One person, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of J P Morgan, initially responded positively but then stated that cooperation would be illegal and began to walk away. I turned to him and said, “You know there is a way for it to be legal. It is cooperation for the common good, not collusion.” He turned and said calmly and smiling, “You are right.”

Most were interested in hearing more. I would then always add, “I am on the board of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs control 86% of the super premium ice cream market in the USA. Ben & Jerry’s is now owned by Unilever. Its CEO, Paul Polman,” who many of them indicated they knew, “is progressive. For instance, we could pilot this idea by having Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs agree to have the minimum wage where our ice creams are produced be the livable wage in each area. Everyone wins. The employees win, the community wins, if not in the initial agreement all the smaller competitors would join in the agreement rather than be attacked in the transparency of the Internet, relative to one another there is not an increase in the costs to the companies, the governments will love it because it is cooperation for the common good not collusion, and the duopolies will be seen as cooperating to make the world a better place. There is not a global government or unions, but there are global corporations. This will provide them the opportunity to take the lead to make the world a better place for us all, to end the race to the bottom in the use of people and communities and to lead in the rise from the bottom. I believe the first duopolies to market with this approach will have their brand names loved.”

What was so interesting to me was that not a single person gave me any indication he or she had thought of this as a possible future. That is why I am reporting it to you. It is a possible future and, in my judgment, now a most likely one.

However, it will not easily occur as long as we all continue in the immature assumption that competition, not cooperation, is fundamental in nature. Therefore, if the person was ready to hear more, I always added this, an easy way to understand that cooperation is fundamental in nature.

“If I have an apple in my hand and neither you or I want it, anyone could take it and we would both be as happy afterwards as before. However, if you want it and I want it, we could compete over it. However, the competition can only take place if there is agreement that who gets the apple is important. That is the cooperative context. Through a simple example such as this it is obvious that cooperation, not competition, is the fundamental process in nature. Anytime two people agree to do anything, from a conversation to building a company, there is a cooperative context: they both agree it is important to do it.

“Cooperation,” I would continue if invited to do so, “is when the parts give priority to the whole. An obvious example is the parts of our bodies. Our lungs, hearts, liver, knees, and nose are all cooperating for the health of our bodies. Disease, such as cancer, is when some of the cells stop cooperating.

‘Therefore, if cooperation, not competition, is the fundamental process in nature everywhere, the universe is an indivisible whole, just as Lao Tzu, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein, and all the other greats concluded. No one has found the beginning, end, or edge of the universe. We do not understand how this can be, but there is much more we still do not understand as well. What is important is that cooperation is the fundamental process in nature and competition, compromise, and love are three forms of cooperation. Cooperation is only the opposite of competition in the dualistic system called “language”; there is no opposite of cooperation in nature. It is fundamental and inescapable.”

Well, as you can imagine, at this point most thought I was breaking more new ground then they were ready to discuss further. I would then conclude by saying, “My point is simply this, lacking enlightened leadership it will not be easy for the multinational corporations to take the lead to start primarily cooperating for the common good until the public learns about the rapid expansion of duopolies and reacts negatively. Then, out of self-protection, cooperation between duopolies will begin. What will make it much easier will be the realization that cooperation is, indeed, the fundamental process in nature. Therefore, they are already primarily cooperating and they will simply be cooperating more and doing it directly. They will continue to compete as a secondary priority. This will be in the self-interest of us all, especially the duopolies which, lets face it, no one will be able to close down.”

I am glad I was able to get some of these ideas into the thinking of so many of our corporate leaders.

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