July 25, 2014 at 1:00 am

The perils of mixing politics, business

When I was a small child, one of the most dramatic and effective business boycotts in the history of America occurred. This was the Montgomery bus boycott. By refusing to ride the bus, blacks who were being discriminated against were able to terminate many discriminatory practices not only in Alabama, but throughout the South. The white-owned businesses were clearly being unfair, and the public transportation system was no better. The actions taken were appropriate and in many cases heroic.

The power of the purse, particularly in a capitalistic society, is mighty, and business boycotts are a potent tool in the hands of the masses to enforce economic and social fairness. Through the use of the ballot and the wallet, we the people have life-or-death power over virtually every aspect of our nation.

Astute business people generally do not make their political views widely known, because they realize that about half of their customers agree with them and half do not. There is no need to unnecessarily create animosity, especially when you are trying to sell products. In the case of Costco, a company highly respected for wise business practices, Jim Sinegal, the co-founder and former CEO, has made no secret of his profound admiration for President Obama and his policies.

For the sake of disclosure, I should reveal that I have been a member of the Costco board of directors for 15 years. There are people on the board of several political persuasions, and we are all friendly and work well together because politics plays no role in business decisions. In the years that I have had the privilege of serving on the board, I have never witnessed a single incident where politics influenced a business decision. Not only would that be unwise, but it would lead to mass resignations and membership cancellations, including yours truly.

Because of Sinegal’s public support of Obama, the recent withdrawal of Dinesh D’Souza’s book “America: Imagine a World Without Her” from Costco warehouses nationwide, just before the release of the movie by the same title, was widely interpreted as a political move — the movie is very critical of the president. I spoke to current Costco CEO Craig Jelinek, who was so absorbed in the business of the company that he had been unaware of the movie prior to the resultant backlash. He readily admitted that those responsible for managing the limited book space in Costco warehouses should have been aware of the imminent release of the movie and retained the book in anticipation of a brisk stimulation of book sales, which had been sluggish.

Costco, once everybody’s favorite place, suffered a major black eye, not because of an inappropriate injection of politics into the business world, but rather owing to an uncharacteristic lack of attention to what was going on in a small segment of the sales portfolio.

Through my budget-management experiences as a division director at Johns Hopkins for many years, and through many tough financial experiences as the president and co-founder of the Carson Scholars Fund, which is active in all 50 states, I gained enormous knowledge of business practices, but that pales in significance to what I have learned as a board member of both Costco and the Kellogg Co. during the past 17 years.

Managing and growing large multinational corporations requires wisdom and experience, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with and learn from both politically liberal and conservative business executives. I can honestly say that wise business practices transcend political ideology, and those who intentionally inject their politics into their business do so at their own peril. Their actions will be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, based on their political views.

In the case of Costco and the D’Souza book, lack of awareness was interpreted by many conservative customers as political misconduct because of Sinegal’s views. Although he and I differ politically, he continues to be a huge financial supporter of the Carson Scholars Fund and many other educational endeavors. When he was CEO, he could not sleep at night if someone else offered a better value on a product. He cared deeply about how employees were treated, and he refused to accept a salary comparable to other CEOs in the industry. He also has nothing to do with Costco book sales, nor would he wish to at this point. We have much common ground and are friends, even though we often discuss political issues.

There is no need for political differences to precipitate hostility in personal relationships. We can build a strong, prosperous nation together if we are willing to talk and use our collective strengths to accomplish common goals. We must maintain open channels of communication, and as a society, we must learn to vote wisely with both the ballot and the wallet.

Ben Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University and author of the new book “One Nation: What We Can All Do To Save America’s Future.”