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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

Searching for Greatness

. And this winter there’s more activity than usual.

After the normal “Person of the Year” announcement came the exceptional “Person of the Century.” I’m surprised that no one trumpeted the “Person of the Millennium.”

Time magazine did surprise the business community when it named Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, Inc., its Person of the Year. After all, Bezos’ company has spent millions of investor dollars without turning a profit.

Bezos will tell you that’s all part of his plan. He’s spending to build market share and capture the eyes of millions of consumers on his company’s Web pages. As he invests in logistics infrastructure, he’s also expanding his product lines beyond books and music.

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Bezos has yet to prove his E-commerce business model will work. If scale is important in retailing over the Internet, Bezos is certainly ahead of the pack. Books and music also lend themselves to Amazon-type distribution. Maybe he deserves recognition just for being out there first.

Then there was Time’s selection of Albert Einstein as Person of the Century. Any selection in this category was bound to stir debate. To select a single person for this distinction takes a real Solomon , and a real sense of history.

Those ingredients are often missing when journalists create these “competitions” principally to sell magazines. Real greatness in business is not always recognized and remembered. That’s my problem with these lists.

The List

Who were the business greats of the century? There are thousands of them. Some are household names, the so-called captains of industry. Others are known only in their local communities, having built both large and small businesses. To discover them, we have to go back in time.

In the captains category, there are people like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan.

Edison was the man who turned science into a font of invention for the masses. He held more than 1,000 patents. His brilliance was the precursor to the General Electric of today. Edison certainly brought good things to life.

Ford brought us the modem-day production techniques that made the automobile ubiquitous. Not everyone admires him for filling our highways but he certainly made complex technology available to the average consumer.

Sloan taught us modern-day management techniques, while at the same time pulling General Motors out of difficult financial and operating conditions. Sloan took a complex company and created the management process to make it run. He invented a strategy , a model for every buyer , and the financial controls to run a multidivisional enterprise. Next to Peter Drucker, he may have been the greatest management thinker of the 20th century.

Recognizing Others

The list could go on, almost endlessly.

There were the Crockers of Fitchburg, Mass. Like many families in the past century, they built a large local business. They created the company town in a benevolent way.

The Crockers owned the mill. And they pledged themselves to a policy of full em ployment. Technology eventually passed them by, and the mill closed. But in their day, they were great.

And then there is the husband-and-wife team that runs a local tavern in the Vermont north country where my family had Thanksgiving dinner. They’re great business folks too. Their enterprise has a consistency in quality and service that creates a wonderful customer experience. Besides that, the tavern is profitable.

All this, of course, begs the question of what comprises real greatness in business.

For me, the answer goes back to basics , and it certainly does not entail becoming a celebrity or a billionaire. Of course, that’s OK too, and worthy of admiration.

Business greatness starts with purpose, like Edison’s service to the public good. Next comes the courage to act, especially when faced with tough problems, as was Sloan. Then comes the perseverance almost always required to get through tough times. My friends in Vermont have plenty of perseverance. And, of course, there is good performance , in profits, service, innovation and quality. It takes being good at all four to keep something great going.

Finally, there is giving back some of your success. The Crockers gave back to their community. So did Andrew Carnegie. And Bill and Melinda Gates are doing the same with their gifts to serve the public good.

Business greatness comes in different sizes, but generally in the same form. From tavern owners to tycoons, there were many great businesspeople in the 20th century , too many to list.

Write to Champy at Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1500, Chicago, IL 60611, or E-mail him at (JimChampy@ps.net).

& #352;1999 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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