Clinton fares poorly in ratings at CEO Forum

July 16, 1995|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Sun Staff Writer

"The one message I can bring is that under this president the economy is performing beautifully, and business leaders will surely give him some share of the credit for that," White House adviser George Stephanopoulos said as he waited to speak to 200 heads of America's corporate power structure.

But the executives, armed with wireless electronic push buttons that conferred the power of instant polling, didn't see it that way.

In rapid succession, they gave President Clinton an 84 percent ++ disapproval rating on his administration overall, 68 percent disapproval on the administration's handling of the economy, 91 percent disapproval on foreign affairs, 83 percent disapproval on the deficit and 83 percent disapproval on taxes.

The corporate leaders spent three days in Annapolis last week, jammed into a small meeting room to hear experts bombard them with good news at the first Forbes CEO Forum.

Inflation is under control, the economy is growing, Republicans control both houses of Congress, unions are tame, and technology is taking America ever further into the lead of the world's economy, the experts told them.

But no amount of good news could make them happy campers when the man from the White House sat in front of them.

RF They were not, of course, likely Clinton supporters to begin with.

Mostly Republicans

Long before Mr. Stephanopoulos arrived, one of the forum's first instant polls had established that only 11 percent of the all-white, overwhelmingly male audience were Democrats.

"We made a sincere effort to attract women and minority CEOs. We sent them invitations, and we took some of them to lunch, but they turned us down," said Francesco C. Leboffe, the Forbes vice president who organized the conference.

Overwhelmingly Republican though the assembled CEOs were, they were not much preoccupied with politics through most of the forum.

The topic that permeated virtually every session was the pace and sweep of technological change.

It was a topic that mesmerized the CEOs with its potential for profit-making even as it stunned them by its potential to destroy entire businesses.

Several speakers ticked off lists of "endangered species," whole job categories that they said technology is likely to push aside.

On their hit lists were automobile dealers, stock and real estate brokers, insurance and travel agents, bank tellers and mortgage loan officers, printers, even primary care physicians.

"Technology is changing faster rather than slower, and the trends in technology are becoming very powerful forces that will differentiate between the companies that will prosper and the companies that will lose out. You are going to have to know a lot more about technology than you ever dreamed," warned Eric E. Smith, chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems.

But technology also is enabling even big companies to know their own customers and to interact with them in ways they never could before, some of the same speakers said.

"Technology enabled United Airline to discover that a few tens of thousands of fliers accounted for about half of their revenue, and that only a few thousand people actually flew 100,000 miles a year or more each on United," said Adam M. Aron, CEO of Kloster Cruises and United's former vice president for marketing.

'Treat them like gold'

That discovery enabled United to flag the names of the few thousand heavy travelers on every computer in its system and order everyone in the company to give them red-carpet service in every kind of contact, he said.

"We told everybody to treat them like gold," he said.

"Within three months, we knew it was working," Mr. Aron explained, "because some of the customers had found out we had flagged their names and would call up and say, 'I'm a 1A

flier, and I want this or that.' "

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