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The Liveris Formula: Dow’s Inclusive Capitalism

Parasites have a certain weight in history. Donors to a system, a state, a company, always claim to be giving back what they advertise as their hard earned cash. Andrew N. Liveris is one such character. Former CEO of the Dow Chemical corporation, he is a face associated with a company that was responsible for manufacturing the defoliating Agent Orange and napalm.

In 1984, Dow, along with other chemical companies, settled a class-action lawsuit which involved the establishment of a $180 million fund for veterans and their families exposed to the agent. In 2005, Vietnamese victims filed a suit against Dow Chemical and Monsanto, though the action was subsequently dismissed.

The reputation of the Dow Chemical Company has proven messy enough to require some scrubbing. Liveris, who spent some 14-years at the helm of the company, is described as one of its great reformers, transforming “Dow from a cyclical chemicals manufacturing company into one powered by science, driven by innovation and delivering solutions to the world.”

Appearances tend to be just that, and the Liveris legacy is far from golden. For one, he remains obsessed by a particularly faux brand of wealth creation, and exponent of something he calls “inclusive capitalism”. In an interview with Japan Today, he claimed to have coined the term to pair democracy and capitalism, which was “only as good as the effects of […] being fair to all of society.” Where there is unfairness, “we are reverting to tribalism.” Across the planet, he laments, we see tribalism emerging.

Given his role in engineering the merger of Dow Chemical with DuPont, the more accurate term for Liveris would surely be oligarchic capitalism. When the announcement of the policy was made, food and water activists such as Wenonah Hauter were aghast. “Just a handful of large chemical companies including Dow and DuPont already control most of the seed supply used to grow crops like corn and soybeans, as well as the herbicides that genetically engineered seeds are designed to be grown with.”

Liveris’s own brand of capitalism does not fly well amongst watchers at the Australian Financial Review who sense a different sort of inclusivity, one powered by the income of shareholders rather than any fantasy of fairness. Despite earning “$191 million (AU$247) as Dow’s chief executive… you have to wonder if he even owns a wallet. Shareholders still funded his holidays, his footy tickets, even his evening grape juice; and every last cent of his ludicrous crusade to be a statesman.”

Last year, the US Securities and Exchange Commission took issue with Dow for “inadequate perquisites disclosure”. Between 2011 and 2015, Dow proved remiss in identifying $3 million in “authorised but undisclosed” fringe benefits, something for which the company was fined $1.75 million for. In layman’s jargon, Dow had understated by 59 percent perks Liveris had received. These included the personal use of Dow’s private jet, be it to fly in former US president Bill Clinton for a round of golf or flying in cases of Penfolds Grange from Australia. As Dow spokeswoman Rebecca Bentley weakly explained, “The expenses at issue were legitimate business expenses authorised by Dow and within the scope of executive job duties.”

As CEO and chairman of Dow, Liveris minimised scrutiny over company operations. He was instrumental in firing Dow fraud investigator Kimberly Wood in 2014 after she took issue with the well-stocked Liveris gravy train. He cold shouldered internal audit executive Douglas Anderson for raising questions about the way Dow funds were being used.

Since then, Liveris has been in the habit of scrubbing his own reputation. When a corporate figure finds himself in ethical trouble, he turns to philanthropy. In 2018, he gave back to his alma mater, the University of Queensland, funding the establishment of the Liveris Academy in the Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology. The Vice Chancellor, Peter Høj, gushed in admiration. “Naming the building after Mr Liveris is a fitting acknowledgement of one of UQ’s most successful alumni, honouring his exceptional career and his role as a consistent, visible and enthusiastic advocate for UQ.”

What, then, is the purpose of the bequest? The justifying language of the VC is managerial and wooden. “The Liveris Academy will teach and develop future generations of leaders, equipping them to discover and implement technology driven innovations that address grand challenges related to sustainability in a time of dramatic social, technological, economic and environmental change.”

Superficial touch-ups continue to be applied. In April this year, Dow Chemical became a standalone company from DowDuPont. As if it mattered a jot, Jeff Green in Bloomberg Businessweek hailed the new CEO, Jim Fitterling, as “only the second major public company with a gay CEO, after Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook.”

Green acknowledges the Vietnam napalm legacy, and the plastic pollution contributions of the company. But he is impressed by how woke the company has become, scoring “a perfect 100 on Human Rights Campaign Foundation Corporate Equality Index every year since 2005, meaning it meets every requirement for an LGBT-friendly workforce.” Such sublimation and the deception of inclusive capitalism will carry you far on the trendy corporate circuit.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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