Look beyond business for a good dose of reality

ON EXCELLENCE

May 09, 1994|By TOM PETERS

I've seen mortally wounded American soldiers in Vietnam. I've pored over the snapshots my late father-in-law took while liberating a Nazi death camp. And, of course, I've watched "Schindler's List." Still, nothing quite prepared me for the images from Rwanda -- bodies of civilians, by the hundreds, stacked along sidewalks and roads like so much firewood.

But what does that have to do with the management of enterprise, the usual topic of these columns? Maybe a lot.

I'm an ardent defender of capitalism and very free trade. I believe that boosting the general economic tide is the best way to lift all boats.

And I'm not all that unglued by the $203,010,590 Disney's Michael Eisner took home in 1993; after all, the market value of the firm has increased from $2 billion to $23 billion during his 10-year reign.

But those bodies . . . from Rwanda . . . Bosnia-Herzegovina . . . Somalia . . . the West Bank. They make a long-winded speech like "The 10 Keys to Better Customer Service in the Dry-Cleaning Industry" seem almost immoral.

Sure, if American productivity continues to rise smartly, in part on the tide of better customer care, at least the lot of our own have-not class will be ameliorated.

Or will it?

More and more middle-class Americans (not just the rich) are choosing to live in what amounts to walled-off enclaves. That growing isolation is underscored by Labor Secretary Bob Reich's claim that as many as two-thirds of our workers are unprepared for the brain-based global economy.

In short, I think it's high time that business people (me, for starters) pay more attention to the vast circus in which we perform our commercial tricks.

I was delighted to see Levi Strauss' CEO Bob Haas featured in a recent, full-page ad about dealing with AIDS, just as I was pleased Levi's decided to acknowledge China's dreadful human rights record by abandoning that huge market.

Even though I reluctantly favor an extension of China's Most Favored Nation status this June, and thence disagree with Levi's decision, I applaud its courageous and costly public stand. Likewise, I cheer Ben & Jerry's for taking a strong position on restricting bovine growth hormone (even though I'm not sure I agree with that, either); and huzzahs to Body Shop International for its strong views on damn near everything.

But what about me? I've let it be known that if the Singaporeans cane the young American accused of vandalism, I'll cancel my seminar there in July. (Ed. note: Michael Fay was caned Thursday. The columnist canceled his seminar.)

The economic effect will be to reduce America's positive services trade balance by a few bucks, but it's a point I wish to make. I don't care whether you agree with me or not; it's a matter of acting on something besides flattening hierarchies and improving customer service.

In Vermont (where I live several months each year), I'm going to work with the wee elementary school in my wee town; I think it's time the school enters the computer age full-bore -- and for its rural youngsters to escape almost automatic consignment to the burgeoning left-out class Reich describes.

I'm also going to write more about companies that work imaginatively on inner-city problems, that speak out (and act) on human rights; and especially those such as the Body Shop that give employees encouragement and paid time off to participate in community affairs (time, not money, is the most precious gift we can offer any cause).

I am a capitalist through and through. I champion the rights of businesses to do nothing more than make damn good products, serve their customers well, train the bejesus out of their workers and, hopefully, create new jobs that pay well.

But I will champion even more vigorously those that take the bottom line as a starting point; who worry in public about AIDS, Rwanda, etc. -- and then do something.

We are in the middle of a cataclysmic economic shift, and it is causing cataclysmic social dislocation. In the United States, the cancerous rift Reich frets about gnaws at our innards.

And while the information age will enable underdeveloped nations to skip steps toward modernization, it also may lead to the rise of isolated islands of excellence (even at home) surrounded by volatile seas of despair.

There are no easy answers. Maybe there are no answers at all; humankind's record of inhumanity to its own, from the Stone Age to the slaughter of innocents in Bosnia, can lead you to that grim conclusion. Still, business as usual and wholesale denial are unacceptable.

In a recent column on India, I chastised that country's business people for their apparent disregard of the abject poverty that festered outside our hotel conference rooms. Several readers (all Indians) accused me of condescension, and questioned my own apparent disregard of the social strife beyond my cloistered Palo Alto office walls. They had a point. And I intend to do something about it.

Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-6200.

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