David Klafter, Senior counsel at Pershing Square, wrote an extensive letter to Herbalife’s new chief of compliance, Pamela Jones Harbour. Before diving into the letter, the basics:
Pam Harbour was a former FTC Commissioner. The FTC is led by 5 commissioners, she was one of them for 7 years. She recently took a position as head of compliance at Herbalife. Based on public comments, she’s been given tremendous authority.
David Klafter is a lawyer. He’s obviously well qualified and talented. With that being said, in this arena, I think it’s safe to assume the following:
He’s never represented a network marketing company;
He’s never represented a distributor in a network marketing company;
He’s never represented a network marketing company against Federal regulators;
He’s never worked with a compliance department in a network marketing company;
He’s never given advice on the appropriateness of penalties for compliance violations;
He’s never sued a network marketing company;
He’s published no articles, neither academic nor online, relative to the network marketing industry.
I’m not saying he’s a bad lawyer. He’s actually a good one. But it’s important to step back and look at the full picture.
As for his employer, Bill Ackman:
He’s vowed to “go to the end of the earth” with his assault on Herbalife;
He’s bet $1,000,000,000 on Herbalife’s demise, accusing them of being a sophisticated pyramid scheme;
He’s spent $50,000,000 researching / attacking Herbalife;
He’s being investigated by the SEC for Insider Trading;
He’s counting on the Federal government to bail him out of his bet with Herbalife, hoping for regulatory action;
He’s suing the Federal government over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac;
He’s been busy bribing / lobbying Congress to stimulate regulatory pressure. There’s nothing illegal about bribing people in Congress…money in politics is a disgusting reality these days;
He secretly promised a disgruntled former Herbalife executive as much as $3.6 million over 10 years if he blew the whistle.
With all of that being said, it was very magnanimous of Pershing Square to offer assistance to Pamala Harbour.
Since you now have a little more context into the history, it’s time to dive into the letter (available here if you’re reading this via email).
I’ve always believed it to be important to understand from the critic’s point of view. When I process all of the information, both good and bad, I feel I’m in a better position to give advice and make decisions. The “we’re completely right and they’re completely wrong” attitude is held by many in the MLM industry, and it’s juvenile and stupid. This eyes-wide-shut mentality has led to the proliferation of countless scams, all operating under the guise of legitimate network marketing. The largest trade association of network marketing companies, the DSA, has failed to appreciate the enormity of this problem. It’s this failure to spot these issues both inside and outside of its walls has led some member companies to question their continued involvement.
To steal a word from Herb Greenberg, the industry is due for a reset. Based on methodologies, this reset will impact some companies more than others. But make no mistake about it, the screws are about to be tightened and companies will no longer be able to turn a blind eye to questionable activities in the field. The days of “faux compliance” are over.
The question that has analysts on Wall Street scratching their heads: How will this reset affect Herbalife’s revenue? Is the more responsible Herbalife capable of producing similar results as the pre-Ackman Herbalife?
The reality is that the industry absolutely needs to improve. It’s true that many of the sins being referenced by Pershing Square are indeed problematic. Do those transgressions warrant an injunction? No. Is Herbalife a pyramid scheme? No. Have they been caught in the middle of some embarrassing mistakes? Yes. Will they continue to grow? Yes.
In my opinion, unless he exits from his position, Ackman is not going to profit from his gamble with Herbalife. Instead, he’s made an investment that will ultimately benefit the entire network marketing industry, revealing the vulnerabilities and leading to eventual reforms.
Back to the letter…
It’s hard to take this letter seriously when it starts off by saying “[W]e believe Herbalife operates the largest and best managed pyramid scheme in the world.” And with that being said, Klafter proceeds to offer Harbour some free advice.
He does have some good ideas. His compliance recommendations, of which he makes 17, can be boiled down to 2 categories:
The majority of the letter is dedicated to Herbalife’s purported lack of adequate income disclosures. According to Klafter, Herbalife’s current income disclosure document needs to be more robust. Klafter appears to think that more substantial disclosures will result in fewer enrollments and less revenue. He writes, “It is the image (true or not) of their financial success that motivates existing distributors to continue investing time and money, and arms these top distributors with an essential deception that they use to lure new recruits into the scheme.”
He accuses Herbalife of condoning a “fake it till you make it” culture. Earlier in the letter, he writes, “Consider what would happen if, in all meetings with potential recruits, the recruiters were required to remind the audience clearly of certain key facts, for example: 88% earn nothing from the Company; Most money goes to the top 1%; Members churn rapidly; Most distributors suffer net losses. . . ”
Cultures of hype and hyperbole are problematic and do exist. Is it inherent in Herbalife’s culture? Does Herbalife sanitize this sort of behavior with its income disclosure measures? It’s not for me to decide.
Will an increase in disclosures slow down enrollments? No.
I have had numerous clients become more aggressive with its disclosures of average earnings. I’ve seen a client go so far as to say, on camera, “there’s a good chance you’re not going to make any money in this business.” As it turns out, the majority of people aren’t stupid. People intuitively know that there are no guarantees in anything, especially with an income opportunity. When they hear clear messages regarding average earnings, their level of Trust for a company increases, which is actually good for business.
As pointed out by Plaintiff’s counsel in the proposed settlement order in the class action case, “Herbalife claims, and has produced some documents and information indicating, that, since it began publishing the information regarding the winners and losers in its 2012 Statement of Average Gross Compensation [which contained more information regarding the average results], the number of people becoming new Herbalife members has not declined at all. In fact, new memberships have increased. In other words, Herbalife argues that after it began disclosing more information about those who received no payment from Herbalife in its SAGCs, there was no ‘impact’ on the number of people who wanted to become Herbalife members.”
While Klafter is looking to give Herbalife a poison pill, one that he thinks will lead to their end, pressuring them to up their game with income disclosures is not it.
Regarding the sale of “recruiting materials,” Klafter might have traction here. In some companies, particularly the older ones like Amway and Herbalife, some sales leaders have historically made additional income selling “tools.” In some cases, this “additional income” dramatically exceeds the money provided by the MLM. With Herbalife, it has come out that some of their leaders have earned significant incomes from the sales of leads (an old practice, recently shut down) and tools. The issue: It can be construed as misleading when leaders are showing images of wealth at an opportunity meeting when the source of that wealth was not from the sale of products. Amway has bled because of this very issue, being the main driver for its $50M+ settlement to a class action case. If leaders are talking about yachts and mansions while they’ve only made $200,000 from an MLM and $2,000,000 from tool sales, it’s a problem.
Companies in the industry need to be better when it comes to MLM income disclosures. The rules are simple. Whenever money is discussed, the prospect needs to see the average earnings. Instead of simply checking a box where the new person asserts that he or she has seen the disclosure document, I recommend that companies be more clear and have the prospects assert “I understand that the average participant earns a net income of $20 in this business.”
This other category of his compliance suggestions is far more interesting. And candidly, I had never considered these sorts of concepts. Basically, Klafter expresses his hope that Pamela Harbour will have enough authority to protect consumers, regardless of the impact it may have on her employer. This is made clear in the letter when he writes:
“You may find yourself at the fulcrum of choosing between protecting consumers or protecting the Company. Based upon our research, we do not believe you can do both.”
He wants Harbour to have the authority to act independent, free from company pressure, to protect consumers. I’ve seen this sort of conflict inside companies between compliance administrators and company executives. Field leaders will align themselves with company executives, insulating themselves from the big, bad compliance department. When it comes time for the compliance department to root out bad behaviors, the distributors run to mom and dad and ask for protection. And more often than not, they get protection.
He also pushes for the compliance department to have the authority to retain separate legal counsel and/or report wrongdoings to the proper authorities without fear of termination.
His compliance suggestions are summarized below:
Modifications to rules to allow online selling
This is a poison pill. Herbalife, along with every other network marketing company, has every incentive to protect its channel of distribution. Online selling (via eBay and other third-party sites) should never be allowed because it completely undermines the field’s ability to sell. And candidly, online selling amounts to less than 1% of all sales activity.
Public announcements of the imposition of sanctions.
I call this the “head on a stake” policy. I’ve seen companies do it and it’s effective.
Protections for compliance admin to allow them to work without fear of termination.
This is interesting. It’s important; however, I’m drawing a blank as to how to execute this at the employment level. People can be fired for anything (in most states); thus, it would be hard for a compliance officer to argue that he or she was terminated because of their actions against distributors.
Independence of compliance from senior executives and senior distributors, such that top distributors are prohibited from inserting themselves into investigations.
This is very important. I’ve never seen a compliance admin be given the ultimate freedom to sanction distributors without an executive’s authority. And executives are under tremendous pressure to protect the relationship with top-leaders; thus, there’s usually a bit of a conflict between protecting consumers and protecting the leaders.
An anonymous procedure for receiving and investigating wrong-doing.
I call this a “911 Mechanism” where people can report bad activity. Most companies already have this in place.
An extensive monitoring system to capture distributor promotional material.
These tools exist. It’s my understanding Herbalife has some cutting edge tools to search content on YouTube and other areas of the web.
Making top distributors responsible for conduct in their downline.
I like it. If the distributors are going to profit from the bad behavior, they need to also share in the consequences.
Imposition of material financial sanctions to those who profit from wrongdoing.
I like it. I would surmise that regulators want to see more than slaps on the wrist when fraud in the field is detected.
Authority for the compliance department to engage separate legal counsel.
This is interesting. I’m not sure how it would work logistically, though.
Authority for the compliance department to refer matters to Federal, State and local regulators.
This is also interesting. I actually agree with it, provided that this authority is used sparingly. I’ve seen clients of mine snitch on field leaders AFTER the leaders were terminated, to give the authorities a heads up. It’s a pro-active way of saying “If you see this knukcle-head, he’s not with us!”
Regarding Herbalife, these changes, if adopted, would not sink the organization as many critics hope. I have found that investments in tighter compliance processes leads to MORE growth, not less. Compliance kills pyramid schemes, not legitimate companies that offer real products. While Herbalife’s domestic revenue has slowed as the field is absorbing these changes, it’s not going to collapse.
Regarding the network marketing community in general, some of these suggestions are worth considering. If done properly, a robust compliance department can actually be really good for business.
It’s true that some companies operate with a “veneer” of compliance, without taking it seriously with the hopes of fooling regulators. Those days are long-gone. The sooner companies come to terms with this reality, the safer they’ll be. Build the ark before it rains.
What do you think? Do you think some of these ideas could fly?
Pershing Square Letter to Pamela Jones Harbour by kevin_thompson