The Occupy Wall Street protesters have taken to a cry of “We are the 99 percent,” dividing the nation into an above-the-law über-wealthy and everyone else. For this they have been accused of class warfare.
But the real warfare in this country is happening among the business class, and to see an example of it, you need look no further than the events of the past week in Ventura County. What emerged is a picture of small- and mid-sized local companies focused on how to make their businesses sustainable and prosperous for generations to come, while the region’s lone corporate titan signaled to the world that it makes so much money it simply doesn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else.
On Oct. 21, the Ventura County Economic Development Association held its annual Business Outlook Conference in Camarillo. The theme was sustainability, and a survey of the 250 business and civic leaders who attended yielded some surprising results. Two-thirds of the crowd anticipate increased spending to make their businesses more sustainable, and 70 percent said they view sustainability as competitively important. In our region, stewarding your business for the next generation of employees and customers has become mainstream for both mom-and-pops and mid-sized businesses — the “everyone else” of the business class.
And then there is Amgen, the lone blue-chip stock on the Business Times index of local firms and far and away the biggest business in the region with a market capitalization of $52 billion.
The company announced on Oct. 23 that it has set aside $780 million to settle charges that it paid illegal kickbacks to doctors to use its anemia drugs instead of its competitor’s drugs. The alleged scheme involved Amgen providing free drugs to doctors, who would then double-bill Medicare and Medicaid for them. It is unclear whether Amgen will plead guilty to any criminal charges, but it’s almost certain the eventual settlement won’t include any admission of civil liability, despite suggestions in court papers that senior executives knew about the practices.
The $780 million set aside to settle these claims is more money than most of the Tri-Counties’ other employers will see in their lifetimes. But it’s a manageable charge for Amgen, which averages about $4 billion a year in profits and $14 billion to $15 billion in revenue.
So this is how business gets done at the biggest and most economically important company in the region: Engage in illegal practices for years and then take a hit for one quarter to make it go away, all without admitting wrongdoing. Those hardly sound like the rules the rest of the region’s businesses have to play by.
Overall, Amgen is a good corporate citizen in our region, and we are lucky to have its headquarters. The company’s foundation supports many worthy causes. Thousands of talented researchers show up at its Thousands Oaks base each day to work on treating grievous diseases with cures that will never make a lot of money, good work that blockbuster profits help make viable.
And at the VCEDA conference, it was none other than Amgen who detailed its global efforts to make its facilities more sustainable. “We have had almost as many hits on our website for our sustainability report as for our annual report,” an Amgen manager told the crowd.
We call on the company’s executives to bring a similar ethical sustainability to the company’s sales and marketing activities so that it continues to be an important part of our region’s economy for generations to come.