When I read last month that James Rowse–the chairman of Veryfine Products Inc., the juice bottling concern, had died, I thought of how this man’s life embodied a much more enlightened era in the history of American business.
When Kraft purchased Rowse’s company in early 2004, Rowse set aside $15 million in proceeds that he then distributed to his company’s workers. He ensured that all of Veryfine’s 400 employees would keep their jobs, and that those with a minimum of 20 years experience would receive an extra year’s pay.
In a recent email, Scott Klinger, co-director of the Responsible Wealth project at United for a Fair Economy in Boston, cited other examples of enlightened business leadership. One of his favorites, he said, is Bob Kierlin, founder and recently retired CEO of Fastenal, an Ohio-based public company.
As Klinger wrote, Kierlin took justifiable pride in the fact “that many other employees made more than he did, but he paid employees’ stock options personally out of his founder’s stock. Kierlin also eschewed the palatial lifestyle…preferring to drive a few hours to visit customers, stay at budget motels, and, much to the chagrin of many colleagues, share a room with associates.”
Rowse and Kierlin are exceptions to the rule. We live in times when morality is disdained in corporate boardrooms. The social compact that rested on the idea that honest labor deserves a living wage has all but disappeared.
The Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress have formed an alliance with rapacious CEOs to foster an anything-goes atmosphere. Labor is devalued, fair play is dishonored and greed and corporate ethics have become synonymous. (Is it any surprise that in the 2004 elections, the largest corporate PACs favored Republicans over Democrats by a ten to one margin?)
It was recently disclosed that pharmaceutical giant Merck established a golden parachute for its 230 senior executives so if the company is bought, managers would be able to walk away with three years in salary and bonuses. And three years after the Enron debacle, business groups are fighting a pitched battle with state employee pension funds against reforms which would make future corporate looting of employee pensions much more difficult.
Part of “the problem,” as Klinger sees it, “is the stories that corporate executives tell themselves about their worth, relative to the rest of their colleagues. The ‘star culture’ has invaded many large company cultures. Executives are convinced that their work is what creates shareholder value and other employees are commodities to be acquired at the lowest possible cost.”