Mr. Holland’s opus – low-profile CEOs – The Flip Side – Column
I have always been an ardent admirer of companies whose CEOs know how to keep their mouths shut. That is, the heads of companies who are adept at sticking to their knitting, who do not feel that part of the top-dog job description includes writing self-aggrandizing books, delivering pompous speeches, or appearing on “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” to avail us of their thoughts on the state of American youth or the simmering conflict in the far reaches of the Hindu Kush.
Years ago, when I worked at Forbes magazine, a battle-worn senior writer invariably came to our bi-weekly story meetings with a proposal to write an article about a company none of us had heard of. These companies were always well-managed, highly profitable enterprises that operated in unglamorous industries nobody else on the staff wanted to write about. They always had names such as Great Northern Telemagnetic or Trans-Albertan Nickel. Because the companies in question kept such a low profile, many of us suspected they did not even exist. But they did exist, and I always admired them. It was reassuring to know there were so many companies out there doing what they were good at – making money – without feeling the need to make a big splash.
Thus, I was crushed to read a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, entitled “UPS, Feeling Boxed In, Stages Its Own Coming Out.” The story said that UPS, a $21 billion company, was tired of being quiet, competent, sturdy, dependable “Big Brown,” and was planning to spend a ton of money to get the public to know it better. After years of keeping an unbelievably low profile, UPS now is mounting a major public-relations campaign not only to enhance its own corporate image, but to “build a public profile” for its new chairman, James P. Kelly, who will take over from Chairman and CEO Kent C. Nelson at the end of this year.
When I read this news, I fell into a deep, deep depression. UPS is, and always has been, one of those solid companies that makes America great. Not only is it profitable, fast on its feet, and infinitely self-renewing, but it’s one of those companies that has always been easy to like – mainly because it isn’t run by a jerk. In an era when loud-mouths such as Lee Iacocca, weirdoes such as H. Ross Perot, and fancy Dans such as Donald Trump dominate the headlines with their unsolicited comments on everything under the sun, UPS has been run by a guy who’s been more than happy to do what CEOs get paid to do: run his company.
The UPS story wasn’t the only bad news I read in the paper recently. The other horrifying news bulletin was that Robert Holland had resigned as CEO of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade ice cream company. I’d really enjoyed Mr. Holland’s 20-month tenure at the socially conscious ice cream company based in the People’s Republic of Vermont, because he seemed to know how to keep his mouth shut. True, he was a bit of a dud as a CEO, but as a manager he had many fine qualities. Unlike founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Mr. Holland didn’t seem to feel that running an ice cream company qualified him as an expert on American foreign policy. He didn’t act as if an ice cream company were a branch of the State Department. Indeed, published reports concerning his ouster from the firm suggest that he left the company partly because Ben and Jerry themselves were upset about his plans to move into the French market. Seemingly, the founders of the company were uncomfortable with Mr. Holland’s expansion into France because they didn’t like the country’s nuclear-testing policies. Apparently, Mr. Holland thought he’d been hired to boost sales at an upscale ice cream company. In fact, as he ruefully discovered, he was running the dairy wing of the anti-nuclear movement.
Although Mr. Holland did not do a great job as a CEO, he did give us a 20-month respite from Ben and Jerry’s self-congratulatory blather. Now that Mr. Holland is out of the picture, we can expect a return to business as usual in Waterbury, VT, as the company once again bores this country to tears with crypto-lefty political tirades that went out of style with Jimmy Carter.
In short, corporate America, and indeed the entire Republic, have been hit with the double-whammy. In the twinkling of an eye, one of our finest, least splashy companies has decided its CEO needs a higher profile, while a piddling, inconsequential corporation whose public profile has always been far out of proportion to its actual size ($155 million in sales? Are you kidding me?) is now sure to go back on the warpath. One can only hope that when Mr. Kelly takes the helm at UPS this year, his higher profile will be sculpted along the lines of an Andrew Grove or a Sam Walton, and that he will not turn into an arrant blabberpuss such as Ted Turner or Lee Iacocca. The last thing this country needs is another big shot with more money than brains. We already have enough of them.
Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.
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