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Four Shares for Vesak Day: Spreading Some Love

Ser Jing - Four Shares for Vesak Day, Spreading Some Love (pic)For those too caught up at work, this coming Friday would probably be a welcome break as we celebrate Vesak Day. To Buddhists, it would mean a celebration of the birth and enlightenment of the Buddha. To others, it would mean a fantastic long weekend.

Much like Christmas, Vesak Day is also a celebration of compassion and love as the Buddha was known for his deep compassion toward his fellow men. In that spirit, I would like to highlight some companies who are making an effort to spread some love.

While it’s important for companies to make profits, it does not have to come at the expense of its social or natural environment. In fact, it’s possible to be doing good and making dough at the same time, as some American companies have demonstrated.

In the USA, the Chief Executive Officer of organic food retailer Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ: WFM), Mr John Mackey, is leading a movement called Conscious Capitalism. The movement believes in building businesses that have a purpose beyond profits and that “by focusing on its deeper Purpose, a conscious business inspires, engages and energizes its stakeholders. Employees, customers and others trust and even love companies that have an inspiring purpose.”

Whole Foods Market is known for wanting to help improve the health of Americans by offering healthier foods in their stores and offering education about nutrition and healthy-eating. Along the way with improving the health of Americans, shareholders’ financial-health were also in for a treat as its share price has appreciated by more than 300% from US$26 a decade ago to US$105.04 today.

They’re not the only ones that made shareholders rich even while carrying altruistic aims. Gourmet bread and sandwich retailer Panera Bread (NASDAQ: PNRA), another proponent of Conscious Capitalism, launched its Panera Cares programme in 2009 by setting up bakery-cafés which does not require customers to pay for a meal. Let me say it again – customers do not have to pay for a meal in those stores if they can’t afford to.

The company wants to feed everyone within the community that those particular bakery-cafés were located in. The idea was for patrons who could afford the meals to slip in donations which help to pay for other customers who are in dire need of a decent meal but who just can’t afford one.

The concept has been a success, with donations helping to cover 70% to 80% of the costs of running those stores and since the programme’s launch with its first store in Clayton, Missouri in the USA, Panera now runs a total of five such cafes across the country. Besides doing good for its community, the company has done extremely well for long-term shareholders too as its shares have grown by more than 4.5 times from US$38 in May 2003 to US$192 today.

So, for a company, it seems that taking care of its social environment need not be mutually exclusive with making a profit or generating shareholder returns. Whole Foods Market and Panera Bread are great examples of companies overseas trying to make a difference in people’s lives and lest you think there aren’t any such examples here in Singapore, we shall take a look at some local firms who are also doing their part to improve the community around them.

Investors would probably be familiar with Keppel Land (SGX: K17) as one of Asia’s premier property developers and with a market value of S$6.41b, they do carry a certain heft. But, did you know that Keppel Land has been part of the Dow Jones Sustainability Asia Pacific Index for three since 2010 and the closely related Dow Jones Sustainability World Index since 2011? The index is made up of  some of the largest companies who have demonstrated the best sustainable business practices as defined and measured by Robeco SAM, which include taking care of the natural environment, creating a conducive work environment and being involved with philanthropic activities, among many others. So, for Keppel Land to be included in the index, says something about its efforts to be a business that tries to reach beyond the bottom-line.

And in terms of philanthropic activities, the company has been busy setting up mobile libraries in less-well-to-do countries like Vietnam, spending time to take kids with Special Needs on learning-excursions around Singapore and sponsoring expeditions by Singaporean students to help underprivileged families in India build homes, to name but a few. To top it all off, Keppel Land employees are entitled to two days of annual volunteer-leave to fan the volunteerism-flame in them.

Not to be outdone, fellow real-estate giant Capitaland (SGX: C31) got selected to be part of the Dow Jones Sustainability indices last September. The property developer, which also manages shopping malls and real-estate funds, is also active in contributing to the community – Capitaland participated in more than 200 volunteering activities in 2011 through its philanthropic arm, Capitaland Hope Foundation. The company’s efforts in taking care of the natural environment around us were also rewarded with a Frost and Sullivan Green Excellence Award in 2011.

While what Keppel Land and Capitaland are doing might be different from the spirit of Conscious Capitalism, these are companies who are trying to do some good in our community as well.

Foolish Bottom Line

As investors, we might sometimes get too caught up in the numbers and forget that businesses are essentially a group of people working together toward a common a goal. While it’s important to focus on the bottom-line, sometimes better things can happen when companies make an effort to take care of all their stakeholders – customers, employees, shareholders and the community.

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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Chong Ser Jing owns shares in Whole Foods Market and Panera Bread.

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