The Responsibility of Running a Business

I love Warren Buffett’s sense of the social responsibility inherent in running a business. Here, from his annual report (pdf), he discusses the particular responsibilities of owning a railroad:

Earlier I explained just how important railroads are to our country’s future. Rail moves 42% of America’s inter-city freight, measured by ton-miles, and BNSF moves more than any other railroad – about 28% of the industry total. A little math will tell you that more than 11% of all inter-city ton-miles of freight in the U.S. is transported by BNSF. Given the shift of population to the West, our share may well inch higher.

All of this adds up to a huge responsibility. We are a major and essential part of the American economy’s circulatory system, obliged to constantly maintain and improve our 23,000 miles of track along with its ancillary bridges, tunnels, engines and cars. In carrying out this job, we must anticipate society’s needs, not merely react to them. Fulfilling our societal obligation, we will regularly spend far more than our depreciation, with this excess amounting to $2 billion in 2011. I’m confident we will earn appropriate returns on our huge incremental investments. Wise regulation and wise investment are two sides of the same coin.

At MidAmerican, we participate in a similar “social compact.” We are expected to put up everincreasing sums to satisfy the future needs of our customers. If we meanwhile operate reliably and efficiently, we know that we will obtain a fair return on these investments.

While there may be a particularly strong responsibility in running “a major and essential part of the American economy’s circulatory system,” every business, large or small, plays a key role in an economy, a business ecology.

Just as we have responsibilities as individual citizens, businesses have responsibility as corporate citizens. The world doesn’t become a better place just on its own, or by wishing. It is through the kind of wise stewardship that Buffett describes above. Think about it for your business? How can you create more value for others as you create value for yourself?

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