Technology executives could be the next public enemies

May 27, 2013 4:41 pm

Technology executives could be the next public enemies

By Andrew Hill

About a year ago I was in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, gazing down at the Golden Gate Bridge from one of Larry Ellison’s many spectacular homes. The Oracle chief executive wasn’t there – he had lent the house out for a reception. In any case, he would be the last person to apologise for enjoying the fruits of his success. But the view from technology executives’ balconies is getting stormier. After banks and bankers, could they be next to feel the sting of a populist backlash?

It sounds unlikely. For the tablet-toting, smartphone-stroking, Amazon-and-Googling masses – you and me, in other words – to attack companies that provide the products and services we love would be a case of biting the data feed they hand us.But consider these rumbles: politicians on both sides of the Atlantic attack AppleGoogle and Amazon for their tax arrangements; commentators take Silicon Valley’s wealthy to task for the growing economic inequality in northern California; activists worry about ill-protected privacy, dirt-cheap labour and energy-inefficient server farms; antitrust regulators circle closer.

Like banking, technology is ubiquitous and its benefits often taken for granted. Executives and engineers are highly paid and unafraid to reinvest their wealth in real estate, cars and luxury goods. Forget Wall Street – “after decades in which [the US] has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America”, wrote George Packer in a withering recent analysis in The New Yorker. Like big banks, tech companies are protected by a bubble of their own making – literally in the case of Amazon, which is planning a trio of biospheres for its new Seattle headquarters – and their representatives often exude a sense of entitlement and an overconfidence that technology can solve the world’s problems.

Technology companies do have some clear advantages over banks. They start with what Laurence Evans, who oversees Edelman’s annual Global Trust Barometer, calls a brand “halo”. Technology regularly tops the list of the most trusted industries and has done since the survey started 13 years ago. Even before the financial crisis, banks never rose above the middle of the ranking. Users have an intimate involvement with their iPhones and Samsung Galaxys they will never have with their current accounts or mutual funds. Crucially, technology companies do not stand accused of bringing down the global economy.

One Silicon Valley entrepreneur I contacted last week said it was “a stretch” even to imagine a backlash. I’m not so sure. Technology executives could shrug off the first gentle jabs at their superiority, as financiers did in the years before the credit crunch bit in 2007-08. But they would do better to act now.

Instead of doing as the banks did – closing ranks and deploying battalions of lobbyists to crush dissent – their first priority should be to ensure their products continue to serve customers’ needs. The challenge from new competitors and innovations is a big incentive for technology companies, unlike the banking oligopolies, to go on improving. But still, the temptation to take users for granted, or exploit them – say, for their personal information – is high.

So they must also share their wealth and react early to any perception of excess. Some founder-billionaires, having sweated to build a technology business, may justifiably claim they have no obligation to direct their earnings to good causes. (Others, such as Mr Ellison himself, have made pledges to give away much of their wealth to charity.) But the populist wave of anger at banks and bankers was, and is, fuelled in part by envy. It makes sense not to aggravate that.

Technology executives should keep listening, and keep talking. Tim Cook may not have satisfied critics when he was grilled by the US Congress last week about Apple’s tax affairs but he was a model of calm and reasonableness.

Finally, stay clean. The risk is that technology titans’ undoubted success will breed complacency, which begets arrogance, and can lead to actual wrongdoing. Big Tech has huge advantages over High Finance when it comes to defending its reputation. So its leaders should adopt a new slogan, borrowed from Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer’s declaration to fans of Tumblr, the blogging platform her company has just bought: “We promise not to screw it up.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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