Can American firms duplicate Bosch Group’s social-minded yet profit-driven model?

The local Robert Bosch manufacturing plant is at 8101 Dorchester Road.

The debate over industry’s purpose typically falls on two sides — companies exist to maximize shareholder value or they have an obligation to serve the common good.

A pair of British economists, however, say both goals can be achieved — and they point to Bosch Group, which operates the 1,800-employee Robert Bosch LLC automotive parts plant in Dorchester County, as an example.

Bosch — a private, Stuttgart, Germany-based conglomerate that operates more than 300 subsidiaries in 60 countries — has a corporate governance unlike most businesses in the U.S. It is almost entirely — 92 percent — owned by a foundation called the Robert Bosch Stiftung, which oversees the company’s operations. That ensures the for-profit business side lives up to the values of the nonprofit foundation side.

The foundation has given more than $1,1 billion since its creation in 1964 to organizations that promote health, science, arts, cultural and education initiatives throughout Europe.

Its counterpart in the U.S. — the Bosch Community Fund — gives more than $3 million a year to such programs in the American cities where Bosch has operations, including the Charleston region. Since 2012, the fund has given nearly $1.9 million to South Carolina schools, universities, business groups, charities and worker training programs.

Bosch’s oversight by an independent foundation “provides the appropriate checks and balances on the way the corporation is run,” Colin Mayer, an Oxford University professor, said in a recent interview with Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire.

Mayer says many corporations have been hijacked by short-term investors looking for quick profits, and that has long-range consequences for the business and community at large.

“The corporation is arguably the most important institution in the world — an institution that employs us and invests our savings, and is the source of economic growth and prosperity around the world,” Mayer said in a statement. “Yet the corporation has lost its purpose and become dominated by short-term financial concerns to the exclusion of all others and to the detriment of us as its customers, employees and communities.”

The better alternative, he says, is putting corporations in the hands of long-term investors and independent boards.

“It is important to have a group of very involved independent directors that are giving proper oversight to the running of the corporation to be sure that it upholds the values by which it says it is being run and to take responsibility if the corporation fails to do that,” Mayer told the CSR Newswire.

Economist Will Hutton, author of the book “How Good Can We Be,” told Prospect magazine last month that Bosch is among a handful of companies that “are well-owned and driven by a great sense of purpose.”

Google, Apple and BMW — which has its U.S. manufacturing plant in Greer — also fit that bill, Hutton says. BMW has a structure similar to Bosch in which the BMW Stiftung supervises and advises the company’s board of directors. Unlike Bosch, however, BMW’s foundation does not own a majority of the company. Apple and Google are traditional shareholder-owned companies but with leadership that has “productivist, purposeful principles,” Hutton said.

While Bosch may be that rare case of a corporation both making money — the company recorded a pre-tax profit of 2.8 billion euros on sales of 46 billion euros in fiscal 2013 — and doing good, it’s corporate structure doesn’t translate all that well to the United States.

Frank Hefner, an economist at the College of Charleston, said European companies — and especially German multinationals — have grown from a business and legislative culture that tends to put more emphasis on worker and societal issues than typical American firms.

“It’s not that companies in the United States don’t look at those issues,” Hefner said. “But it’s not what’s driving their motivations.”

Hefner said plenty of American companies do good things and many have foundations that focus on charitable giving. But as long as executive compensation in the U.S. is driven by stock price performance, not some broader set of societal goals, money will be the primary criteria for which a business is judged.

Not that that’s entirely a bad thing, Hefner said. It’s worked pretty well for the U.S. for more than 200 years, save a few major bumps like Enron and the housing/banking crisis.

“The idea that corporations can do things differently, of course they can,” Hefner said. “But would something different be a better model, and for who? I’d hate to see something like that being legislated. That would create a whole set of other problems.”

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_