A Champion of Responsible Investing Takes On the Gun Industry

A Champion of Responsible Investing Takes On the Gun Industry

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Calvert, which was acquired by Eaton Vance in 2016, currently has roughly $14 billion in assets and owns $2.6 million worth of Kroger shares. Mr. Streur wanted management to know “if they weren’t going to stop selling guns to kids,” he would file a resolution to take it to a shareholder vote.

The morning after his call, Kroger said it would stop selling guns to those under the age of 21. Two weeks later, the chain said its stores would stop selling firearms altogether, citing a slump in gun sales.

“When it comes to mass shootings, I think American society feels helpless about what can possibly be done to try and change the equation,” Mr. Streur said in a recent phone interview from Washington, where he lives. “To have the capital markets be part of a solution is meaningful. It is responsible investing at its best,” he said. (Kristal Howard, a Kroger spokeswoman, said that while the company welcomed dialogue from stakeholders, “it wouldn’t be accurate to credit this policy shift” solely to Mr. Streur’s phone call.)

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Mr. Streur, 58, has long been a leader in what’s called environmental, social and governance investing, starting in a boutique money management firm in 1991. But lately, his profile on Wall Street and beyond has been raised by the gun debate. After recent mass shootings, questions have been asked about what role investors might play in forcing companies to ask themselves whether they are complicit in gun violence, and whether businesses, banks or firearm retailers should set rules limiting gun sales or lending to gun manufacturers.

Mr. Streur has been at the forefront of this discourse, taking America’s gunfight to the front lines of finance. Since the Parkland shootings, he has spoken about the importance of responsible investing on a panel in New York, at the Milken Institute annual conference in Los Angeles and at global investing conferences in Berlin and Melbourne, Australia.

But Mr. Streur is not a newcomer to this cause. “I was a lone wolf for a long time,” Mr. Streur said. “A lot of mainstream investors thought this was too radical, too political, too crazy.”

Jim Prescott, a compliance officer at Ariel Investments who has known Mr. Streur for more than 20 years, said he had a theory about where his friend’s passion comes from. “John’s sense of morality, his drive to excel — that comes from somewhere out there in Wisconsin,” Mr. Prescott said.

Mr. Streur grew up in Milwaukee in a family that he said “aspired to be middle class,” but always fell short. He excelled in high school sports and was offered football scholarships by several top colleges, but turned them down to try his hand at rowing instead. He wound up winning a national championship in his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, and by age 20 had made the United States national rowing team. He said it was there he learned that “background, pedigree and privilege matter not” when compared to hard work and determination.

After graduation, Mr. Streur joined the Wall Street investment giant Lehman Brothers. But the fiercely competitive, profit-hungry finance world was an uncomfortable fit, and he said he was quickly disillusioned by what he called “greedy” banking culture.

In August 1990, Mr. Streur left Wall Street to become a partner in a small money management firm, the Burridge Group, in Chicago. It was here that Mr. Streur was first exposed to the idea of responsible investing when his clients asked if he could divest their money from “unsavory” companies, like those involved in tobacco, gambling or guns. Mr. Streur rose to become the president of Burridge, where he worked on divestment drives for 17 years.

During this time, Mr. Streur became increasingly frustrated by the limited impact of socially responsible investing. He went door-to-door on Wall Street trying to convince some of the titans of investment banking that responsible investing matters and should be woven into their business strategies, but faced repeated rejection, he said. In 2007, he said, his own research showed that fewer than 15 responsible investing companies with more than $1 billion in assets were operating in the United States at the time.

A year later, Lehman Brothers, a goliath of investment banking in America, went bankrupt, triggering the global financial crisis of 2008. This proved to Mr. Streur that “the financial system itself didn’t know what it was doing.” He resigned from Burridge Group, now known as AMG Funds, to devote himself completely to socially responsible investing.

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Mr. Streur landed at the helm of a small responsible investment firm called Portfolio 21 in Portland, Ore. He bought and moved to a 2,000-acre sustainably-run cattle ranch along the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountain Range and plunged back into competitive rowing — winning gold in the 2013 FISA World Masters Rowing Championships in Varese, Italy.

In 2014, Calvert came courting.

Mr. Streur decided if he were to take the job at Calvert, responsible investing couldn’t just be about avoiding controversial companies; investors had to try and force them to behave better. “I don’t want to avoid problems and leave them for someone else to clean up. I want to be part of the solution,” Mr. Streur said. He helped Calvert create new principles that focused on research, impact and engaging with companies in order to create change from within, as well as producing competitive profits that would earn the respect of Wall Street. “We needed them to see that these issues would mean something to their stock price,” Mr. Streur said. “That this matters from a business sense, not a social justice sense.”

Until recently, corporate America was still questioning whether responsible investing could work: Did it hurt profits? Did anyone really care?

“Those questions were valid six years ago,” Mr. Streur said. “But no one asks them anymore.” He has watched responsible investing move from the margins to the mainstream.

In the United States, responsibly invested assets have been on an upward march since the mid-2000s, climbing to $8.7 trillion in 2016 from $6.6 trillion in 2014, according to the latest Global Sustainable Investment Alliance Review.

The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, which was established in 2011, is pushing for a new “social and environmental” measure to be included in the annual reports publicly traded companies must submit to the government each year. And in January Laurence D. Fink, chief executive of BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, said if businesses wanted his firm’s support, they must make a positive contribution to the world because “society is demanding” it.

Mr. Streur says he is determined to maintain pressure on assault weapon manufacturers, wanting to provoke a sea change on guns before eventually returning to his ranch. “I believe we are going to reduce the distribution of assault weapons and I believe we are going to make it more difficult for those companies to get capital,” Mr. Streur said. The fight, he added, “is by no means over.”

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