The secretive four
- Written by Winston Ross
- Published in Tech
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Oregon Business conducted an informal survey of business executives, journalists and watchdog groups to identify the state’s most secretive companies.
What follows is a subjective list and several acknowledgements:
Corporate transparency isn’t a binary trait — companies can be transparent in some ways and secretive in others; additionally, one of the ways the magazine is defining transparency is based on a measure that often doesn’t garner much sympathy with a public that is increasingly distrustful of “the media”: how responsive a company is to inquiries from reporters; and finally, it would be impossible to put together a list of the state’s most secretive companies in any unassailable way.
That said, here’s a list of four of the state’s most secretive companies.
When we asked journalists, business executives and public policy advocates to help us think of the state’s most secretive companies, Nike nearly always came up first. In some ways, Phil Knight’s mammoth apparel company can afford to be as clandestine as it pleases: No amount of grumbling from reporters or the public is likely to topple Nike’s massive market share in sneakers, which explains why it’s rare to see company executives quoted in newspaper and magazine articles.
True to form, company media contacts did not respond to requests from Oregon Business for this piece. "Nike historically doesn't like to talk about anything but selling shoes," one employee told us.
Nike is not immune to criticism of its lack of transparency. The company scores well in its disclosures of sustainability. But in several other important categories, Nike’s transparency falls short.
“Nike has continually been under pressure to be transparent about its political spending, its spending on lobbyists,” says Kron, the director of shareholder advocacy for Trillium. “Investors have been filing shareholder proposals with the company for many years, asking them to be more transparent. They’ve consistently ranked poorly.”
Yearly, the Center for Political Accountability releases a report on companies in the S&P 500 that assigns a score for 24 different metrics of political-spending disclosure. On the disclosure of payments to political committees, super PACs, trade associations, 501(c)(4)s and independent political expenditures, the scores are all “abysmal,” says Freed, the president and founder of the center.
“Nike has been a very difficult company to deal with. They do not have a commitment to transparency and accountability.”
In 2012 the company began lobbying the state government for a tax break that would apply only to Nike and prepared a report on its economic impacts, Sheketoff says.
“I wrote the governor’s office and asked for a copy of the report. Some of my friends in the press tried to get it, too. Nike wouldn’t release it. Even the governor’s office couldn’t see it. The governor was quoting it as authoritative and hadn’t even read it. It’s because Nike was looking at building outside of Oregon.”
Even to its own investors and stakeholders, Nike leaves a sizable gap between its reporting cycles, releasing information about supply-chain performance and other measures only every two years.
“That’s a big gap for investors and stakeholders looking to evaluate the company’s performance,” says Trillium’s Lethenstrom. “Annual reporting is much more common.”
In contrast to Nike, Intel has worked hard in recent years to improve at least some elements of its transparency. Each year, the company does a “road show” to demonstrate its generally high levels of corporate responsibility and sustainability, Kron says. “They’ve been very proactive in terms of putting together strong corporate responsibility and sustainability materials.”
The company earns high marks on the CPA's political accountability scorecard, Freed says, and has from the beginning.
“Since we first started working with them, they have embraced transparency and accountability,” he says. To some extent, it’s just company culture, but I also think more companies recognize now, as the political climate changes, that this helps give them protection.”
Where Intel falls woefully short, however, is in its responsiveness to the public (the media). The company, which has struggled to stay competitive as the industry shifted from PCs to mobile, is widely known to ignore requests for comment or refuse to participate in stories.
Intel representatives didn’t respond to multiple inquiries from Oregon Business for this series. It's worth noting, however, that a few days after Trump signed an executive order banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Intel vice president Babak Sabi told Oregon Business he was willing to break ranks and speak to media — about that particular issue. “I am willing to go on the record because I am so frustrated with that policy," Sabi said.
In 2015, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway agreed to buy Oregon-owned aircraft equipment maker Precision Castparts for $37.2 billion. Technically, that means it’s no longer an Oregon company. We’re making an exception.
The company, which has more than 150 factories around the world, has been under fire for years for its rampant pollution of the air, as its foundry spews chromium, cadmium, arsenic and nickel into the sky. The company is allowed to “self-report” its emissions to the EPA, and even by those measures, its hexavalent chromium emissions are the sixth highest in Multnomah County.
Last March, at a meeting the company did not allow community members to attend, Precision Castparts refused a request from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to allow air emissions monitors at its plants in the Errol Heights neighborhood, even after a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database revealed it as a hot spot for pollution. Precision told the agency it had restricted access because of its Department of Defense Contracts.
In 2013 the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts listed the company as the “nation’s number one toxic polluter.” Precision Castparts responded by changing the numbers, claiming in its own testing, that it was releasing smaller amounts of hexavalent chromium than it previously thought.
Last spring the company took new steps to repair its relationships with Errol Heights neighbors, pledging to spend $5.9 million on air and water pollution control equipment, sending a letter to neighbors addressing concerns about the company and promising to be more transparent in a presentation before the Milwaukie City Council.
"Over the past year PPC has held large community meetings where the company has provided information on operations, emission controls and other improvements," says Precision spokesperson David Dugan in an email. Dugan says in addition to remaining in compliance with DEQ-issued air quality permits, "as part of our continuous improvement initiatives PCC has also invested in additional controls in recent years."
But neighbors have criticized community outreach efforts as “spin” and demanded proof that the company is truly committing to reducing its pollution. “They want everyone to just go away,” says Daniel Mensher, one of the attorneys representing neighbors in a class action lawsuit filed against the company last May. “‘Hey, quit worrying about what we’re doing here, we’ve got this under control.’”
For years this privately held company has worked to obfuscate the size of its vertically integrated business and monopolistic tactics that make it harder for fisherman to earn a decent living and for consumers to know they’re buying a sustainable product.
In 2002 the company paid one of the largest fines Oregon has ever levied in criminal case — $800,000 — after a subsidiary pleaded guilty to felony theft. The charges were that Pacific used its clout to convince trawlers to bring in illegally caught rockfish and then sell it to the state for a quarter of what the fish were worth.
The company has never really hidden its attempts to dominate the seafood business, but it has certainly worked to conceal just how much control over the industry it has, says Mike Haglund, an attorney who has handled several antitrust lawsuits against the Clackamas-based company in recent years. To understand the company’s clout, Haglund had to file a lawsuit to gain access to a federal database that tracks West Coast fish landings.
“They argue the market should be defined so that they can make the (market share) percentage look like it’s below 50," Haglund says.
And now, the company may be trying to conceal its acquisitions. Last year, a newly formed entity purchased a seafood processing plant on the bay front in Newport, where Pacific already owns or controls much of the infrastructure. Haglund’s research suggests the company has “ties” to Pacific, that the company “through a totally different series of entities tracks back to Pacific. It’s Dulcich. He’s deviated from the historic method of how his properties are titled to keep this secret.”
Pacific Seafood has worked to rebrand itself as a more transparent and consumer-friendly enterprise, as Oregon Business reported in an April 2015 piece.
“We might as well embrace publicity,” company general manager Joe O’Halloran told the magazine for that piece. “The news will either be good if we embrace it or bad if we let the rumor mill run.”
But that has mostly involved marketing efforts thus far, and the company didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.