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The Business Roundtable's statement pledging to revise a longstanding principle of corporate governance was aimed at millennials who are growing skeptical of capitalism, according to John Engler, the former president of the pro-business coalition.
CEOs from major U.S. corporations know they've "got to tell the story differently" about capitalism, Engler said in an interview on CNBC's "Closing Bell" on Monday.
"We better let the American public, especially this massive new generation that's coming up, understand what's brought them unprecedented wealth and success and opportunity," he said.
The Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs from large U.S. companies, said Monday that shareholder value should no longer be the primary goal of a corporation. Instead, firms should invest in employees, deliver value to customers, support outside communities and deal ethically with suppliers, according to the group's statement.
The coalition, founded in 1972, has put out many statements on the principles of corporate governance since the late 1970s. It said this new definition "supersedes" past statements and outlines a "modern standard for corporate responsibility."
Engler, who was president of the Business Roundtable for seven years until 2017, said this statement was "nicely timed," especially with the presidential election in 2020.
Among the Democratic front-runners seeking the presidential nomination is Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist who has questioned whether capitalism in its current form creates too much wealth disparity. Some of his policies, which have resonated with young voters, include taxing the wealthy.
The coalition's statement is "a great way to go on offense and defend free markets and companies that are free to go to compete," Engler said, adding companies have already been supporting American communities for many years.
— CNBC's Maggie Fitzgerald contributed to this report.