Needing a lesson in 'business with humanity'

Downsizing the home office as business rebounds

May 15, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

When it was announced that the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School would move into the Legg Mason tower in Baltimore's Harbor East this summer, school officials touted the benefits of the move: waterfront view, hip neighborhood, new building loaded with technology and a chance for students to interact with Legg's executives.

But in light of recent events, it might not be wise to expose the business leaders of tomorrow to the people running Legg Mason today.

Instead, it might be better if Legg executives took the elevator to some classes this fall, after the Carey school joins them in the taxpayer-subsidized tower.

"The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School teaches business with humanity in mind," says its mission statement.

How's that?

"… business with humanity in mind."

Let's read on:

"The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School shares the Johns Hopkins University's dedication to improving lives on a global scale by addressing pivotal societal issues, including health, poverty, education and environmental sustainability … For us, this means the transformation of business education, and repurposing the traditional business school toolkit to reflect our principles of humanity, compassion, innovation, and opportunity."

I don't know about you, but I'm shocked.

In the wake of an economic meltdown brought on by the irresponsible and reprehensible practices of the nation's vaunted financial sector, here's a business school that describes itself as "a premier humanistic learning community." It wants to teach men and women how to conduct business in a way that considers the highest of principles and not just the bottom-most of bottom lines.

Imagine: business that's as much about the greater good as it is about the "value to shareholders."

That more than 1,700 full-time and part-time students attend Carey provides modest reason for optimism that a whole new school of thought might emerge about the conduct of business. Perhaps, in a generation, we'll see a shift away from the same dreary business decisions like the one Legg Mason made this past week — cut jobs, even as you're making big quarterly profits again, to quickly jack up your stock price and increase margins even more.

We've seen this before, right? Like a million times. You don't even have to go to business school to understand it.

A group of suits, likely spurred on by a billionaire "activist investor" newly added to the board of directors, wants to impress the raters on Wall Street. So they come up with a plan to cut 350 more jobs — they already cut 150 in 2008 — with the biggest part of the hit (250) in the Baltimore area, mostly back-office staff. This isn't called laying people off, or stressing families, or betraying your hometown. It's called "increasing efficiencies."

Within hours, your stock price makes its biggest jump in a year. Investors love you again.

Never mind that, just a couple of years ago, you convinced city officials that you were still a good corporate citizen and that you'd eventually employ 1,000 workers, not the 550 projected by 2012.

They schmoozed you. They wanted to make sure you stayed in Baltimore.

And you did. You left your 35-story Light Street skyscraper for the more glamorous Harbor East. You moved to a building whose politically connected developer got a $33 million tax break from the city.

Never mind that the tax break probably wasn't necessary, with Harbor East development in full swing, or that a city burdened with the state's highest concentration of poverty and the highest property tax rate could ill afford to give such breaks to companies run by millionaires.

You don't trouble yourself with those questions, however. That's how you make decisions such as the one Legg Mason made last week: After reporting quarterly profits of $63.6 million, you tell 250 people at the home offices their jobs will be eliminated. You don't let that whole tax break thing on the shiny office tower bother you. No matter that the layoffs are hitting the Baltimore area, your hometown, disproportionately. Don't even think about that. What you think about is "growth in margin for our shareholders."

It's grand that the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School will move into the Legg Mason tower for the fall semester. But if the students want to learn about "business with humanity in mind," they might want to keep to the four floors their school will occupy — the first, second, 12th and 13th — and not wander off to the Legg suites.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

http://www.twitter.com/MiddayRodricks

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