Toops Scoops: Apple, Panera and the Profitability of Ethics

As we head into March and National Ethics Awareness Month for insurance, I've been thinking a lot about acting with integrity.

Not that any of us aren't. I'm a firm believer that most of us are trying our best to do right by our fellow human beings. But in tough times, it's easy to slip into a survivalist mentality where we will do anything to hang on, hoping that when (and if) good times return, we can go back to the luxury of "doing the right thing."

Except that doing the right thing should never be a luxury.

Probably the biggest thing that got me thinking about integrity was a story that's been bubbling up for awhile but finally achieved huge national exposure this week on ABC's Nightline: working conditions at the Foxconn electronics plant in Shenzen, China.

The massive plant churns out products like the iPad -- not by machine (too expensive), but human labor. To me, the most sobering aspect of the Foxconn story is the "suicide nets" draped along the upper stories of the building to prevent jumpers.

You could argue that the young Foxconn workers are lucky to have jobs, that living conditions in the dormitories are no worse than in rural China, and you'd be right. But the image of all those silent workers put me in mind of conditions at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and it would be nice to think we've evolved beyond that.

I don't think the Foxconn expose will cut into the hordes of people queueing up for the lasest Apple toy, or slow down the beatification of Steve Jobs. But it might cause us to think about whether our corporate practices are ethical.

Ironically, some scientists say that the "nice guys finish last" mindset is wrong -- not just morally, but because it's inaccurate.

Dacher Ketlner, a professor at the University of California/Berkeley and co-director of the Greater Good Science Center, maintains that we humans have survived as a species by controlling our destructive instincts and protecting, helping and being kind to one another.

That's very high-minded and all but, to be crass, can it turn a buck? Conventional wisdom might say no -- but a quiet trend that started in Dearborn, Mich. actually suggests that it can.

About a year ago, Panera Bread launched an experiment in Dearborn by setting up a store where customers "paid what they could" for menu items. The experiment worked: The company estimates that about 20 percent of patrons give more than the suggested donation, about 20 percent give less or nothing, and about 60 percent leave the suggested amount.

A year later, the cafe is breaking even, taking in about 80 percent of the retail value of the food, enough to pay expenses. Panera is happy enough with the results to be launching more "pay what you can" locations in other cities.

And Panera's shareholders are probably pleased, too: At year-end 2011, Panera reported adjusted net income of $42 million, or $1.42 per diluted share, a 28 percent year-over-year increase from 2010.

Of course, insurance is neither electronic toy nor bread. And actuarially speaking, there is no way insurance could replicate the Panera formula. But by thinking altruistically, Panera is taking the long-term view of corporate success and building a devoted return-customer base -- and insurance is all about repeat customers.


About the Author
Laura Mazzuca Toops,

Laura Mazzuca Toops,

Laura Mazzuca Toops, National Underwriter Property & Casualty executive managing editor, is responsible for the Agent & Broker channel for Her more than 20 years of property & casualty insurance experience includes associate editor at Business Insurance, Midwest managing editor with Insurance Journal, and freelance work for insurers, brokers and trade associations. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Columbia College Chicago. She may be reached at


Resource Center

View All »

Contractors General Liability Coverage 102

What is a prior work exclusion? Which option is right for my client? Why do...

Sign up today to get a 50% matching credit -...

Insurance marketing sometimes seems like it's a game of swings and misses, but we're here...

Guide: 5 Steps to Selling Cyber

Cyber risk and data security is on the agenda of every business owner and executive....

Citation Correlation

Do rigger and signalperson qualifications correlate with the cause of crane and rigging accidents? ...

Complete Guide to Electronic Signatures in Property & Casualty Insurance...

In property and casualty insurance, closing new business quickly is key. Learn how to leverage...

INSTANT ACCESS: Complimentary Sales Closer Questionnaires

Help property owners or managers compare your commercial residential property insurance coverage vs. the competition....

Determining Vacant Property Perils and Valuations

Are your clients fully covered for Vacant Properties? In this economic climate, your insureds may...

Risk Management for Law Firms

This package of 3 concise risk management articles offers straightforward content and practical suggestions law...

Guide: Top 15 E&O Risks-And How To Avoid Them

Accidents happen. But when it's an errors and omissions oversight, that accident can open your...

We'll Show You How to Reach Your Sales Goals

Whether you work alone or have a team of agents working for you, we can...

Agent & Broker Insider eNewsletter

Proven success tips and essential information to help agents and brokers grow their practice – FREE. Sign Up Now!

Advertisement. Closing in 15 seconds.