Veteran Business Leaders Consider How Times Have Changed

By Robert D. Hershey Jr. N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, December 26, 2000 | Go to article overview

Veteran Business Leaders Consider How Times Have Changed


Robert D. Hershey Jr. N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


The world of business has changed remarkably in the past quarter- century. AT&T is preparing its third split-up, while the government seeks to break up Microsoft, a company that did not even exist then. The Internet has opened vistas for business that no one saw even a decade ago, and the United States is in its longest period of economic expansion ever.

But amid the progress, what has been lost that was worthwhile? We asked several people who used to be at the heights of different aspects of business to assess what they regretted most about the changes that have occurred. They singled out situations ranging from the new "villainy" of globalization to the lack of real thoughtfulness now given to investments.

Following are their responses:

Richard J. Mahoney

Former chief executive of Monsanto; now distinguished executive in residence, the Weidenbaum Center, Washington University.

Americans doing business in developing countries in the 1970s, 1980s and even into the early 1990s were generally welcome partners. We brought the desired technology, market access, management skills and money for investment. I recall being the subject of local newspaper photo-ops to celebrate the opening of a new facility or the establishment of a technology collaboration with a local partner.

As the 1990s progressed, however, the headlines changed from collaboration to exploitation with the appearance of a villain called globalization. To be sure, the business parties and government officials still found the agreements attractive, but opposition emerged, particularly in the "have" countries among groups protesting the exploitation of the "have nots."

Facts were not necessarily important; appearance was -- the appearance of exploitation, whether in local wages paid, farm- cropping practices exported, Western culture "imposed" or a host of other issues that were embodied at the wild gathering of international trade protesters during the WTO meeting in Seattle last year.

In the early 1990s, I received an award and an ovation following a speech I made describing the promise of agricultural biotechnology to feed the world. My successor as CEO in the late 1990s received a pie in the face from a protester at a similar forum. What a difference those few years have made.

No doubt we paid too little attention to potential public reaction as we in the industry made our program more international, urged on by our trading partners in the developing world. Perhaps we should have seen that the same technology that brought instantaneous trading around the world would foster instantaneous "anti" communication and organizing.

Whatever the cause of the rise of opposition, it is here to stay, a cynic would say, as long as strong economies and rising living standards provide the luxury of protest. But I think it will be even longer than that.

Still, one yearns to return to a time when enlightened self- interest -- doing well by doing good in helping to raise living standards -- was considered progressive instead of profligate. A time when the results of world trade were considered glorious rather than globaloney. Alas.

Robert L. Crandall

Retired chairman of American Airlines; now board member of American Express and Celestica.

The thing I miss most today is political civility. Twenty or 25 years ago, political conversation tended to be a good deal more issues-oriented and much less partisan and much less personally bitter.

The acrimony and the incivility and the outright dishonesty that is beginning to characterize political life is causing the American public to lose faith in its government. I think that's a great loss. We need to believe what our government officials say. They need to be both a good deal more forthright and more forthcoming.

I don't know when it really started. …

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