Universal Owner is a mission-driven start-up intent on using the power of objective data to help the financial sector transition companies around climate change
Universal Owner’s founder, Thomas O'Neill, has long seen climate change and environmental degradation as the primary threat to human security in the 21st century. His passion is trying to find and change systemically important pivot points in the business system that inform both government policy and behaviour of companies in the real economy. In 2015, he co-founded InfluenceMap to produce the world’s first system to analyse and challenge corporate lobbying on climate policy — the primary obstacle to an effective governmental response.
Working with institutional investors, he found they had a tremendous — and often under-utilised— authority over the corporations they own. Many of the companies they have influence over are responsible for the majority of the world’s production and pollution. In 2019, Thomas launched the FinanceMap platform, which pioneered the first external analysis on the robustness of investors’ corporate engagement programs, in turn having a significant impact on many of the world’s biggest asset managers.
Thomas left InfluenceMap to focus on the concept of impact and helping institutional investors achieve it through their engagements.
Why the Universal Owner name?
The concept of the universal owner was developed in 1995 to describe large institutional investors with highly-diversified and long-term portfolios that effectively hold a large share of the overall market. Therefore, it follows that investment returns depend on the continuing good health of the entire global economy and all the conditions which underpin the production of value - labour, the earth's biological systems, political stability, etc.
From this perspective, it does not make sense for a universal owner to extract profit by investing in a polluting company if the cost of that pollution is externalised and incurred by another business that they also own.
In the 2019 paper 'Universal Ownership in the Anthropocene', Dr Ellen Quigley argued for an expanded definition of the concept. With the rise of passive investing and portfolios with "unhedgable" climate risk, all long terms investors (including citizens with savings) could be defined as, and think of themselves as, 'Universal Owners'.