William Agee turned 41 this month and looked out on a world very different from the one earlier genreations of corporate chieftains faced.
In his world, government regulators are said to be overregulating. Workers are demanding a more flexible, responsive job environment. Inflation rages. And the U.S. economy generally appears to have lost much of the energy, the inventiveness and the supremacy it once had.
More than any other trend line, this last one worries Agee, chairman of Bendix Corp., the most. No longer is America the unfailing growth machine, the land of unchallenged industrial might. Today, it is a nation economically weakened and competitively threatened.
"We have lost our technological edge," Agee said during a recent interview here. "Whether you cite new patents, competitiveness of our products in world markets, relative productivity increases between the U.S. and Western Europe or Japan -- whatever you cite -- in the aggregate, we are lagging behind the two or three areas in the world that are our largest competitors."
The reasons for this decline are many and complex, but Agee noted a few of them. On the surface, he blamed inflation for depressing business confidence in the economy and discouraging investment. Looking for deeper causes, he chided expensive social programs and excessive regulations for imposing large ocsts on firms and siphoning resources from potentially more productive project.
He also criticized government, tax policy for putting too much emphasis on increasing consumption and not enough on spurring investment. In general, a sort of dangerously "complacent attitude" toward America's economic strength took hold in this country some time during the past two decades, he said.
"It is going to take some fairly revolutionary thinking -- some enlightened, tough, new thinking -- to cause things to take place to correct some of these problems," Agee said.
In the past year, Agee has been traveling to Wahington regularly to serve on a special Commerce Department subcommittee that is studying the innovation-productivity problem. It is the first time the young chairman has served on a government committee. He has found the experience both instructive and frustrating. He expects his new Washington connection to strengthen in the future.
"It used to be government was regarded as an adversary," he remarked. "That was the watchword. It isn't anymore. Now it is important to establish a cooperative relationship. That will take people coming here, learning how Washington ticks."
All of which is part of what Agee sees as the larger picture of the changing nature of the corporation in today's society. He explained that "the corporation of today, small or large," is "going through a phase and we'll be there for the rest of my lifetime at least. The provate institution, the corporation, is no longer private. It's a public institution."
There are other differences, too. "The fact that the world is more interdependent and more international adds a complexity and a new dimension to the task of managing a corporation," Agee said.
"Also, the people who work for you today have different aspirations and ambitions and, in some ways, are brighter than before. You must be more open, more candid, more participatory with these people. That requires a different style of management."
What kind of style? "You can't be as authoritarian," Agee replied. "You have to be more sensitive, more aware."
What are the issues tomorrow's corporate chairman is likely to have to deal with? In part, Agee said, the issues of tommorrow will be extensions of current ones. Among them is the energy problem. He also forecast continued concern for improving product quality and safety, which is linked now to the pressing question of how to effect an adequate and uniform product liability code.And he predicted sustained attention to tailoring work places more to workers' needs an interests.
New issues will come into focus as well. On the domestic front, Agee said both government and business will struggle increasingly with retirement-related matters, including pension funds and the Secial Security system. On the international front, he cited the growing tendency toward trade protection in many conuntries and predicted mounting tensions between nationalist-minded isolationsists and free traders over what the U.S. world trade position should be.
He also advocated the urgent need for American managers to learn to compete better in foreign markets. "We as a country have never been as skilled at international trade as some of our counterparts who have needed it more," Agee commented. "Now we must develop this skill if we are to be competitive and grow."
Respectful of his elders and predecessors, Agee was reluctant to characterize his job as any more difficult than job of corporate chairman in decades past. "I don't like to say, boy, I've got it much tougher than they did," he said. "It is a more complex world today just because we're more interdependent -- and we're not going to make it any less complex. But I don't spend any time saying, gee, I wish I were a chief executive 20 years ago. I'm here, I'm involved and I just deal with the issues as they come along."
Then, too, though the times may be more complex, there are some trends going in favor of today's business managers. One of them seems to be a more positive public regard for the business community.
"I think there is a greater appreciation today of business' role," Agee said. "The kids, particularly, are more now as they were when I got out. They are more interested in jobs. They are more interested in seeing the system work. I think the trend line is up." William M. Agee
graduated University of Idaho with a B.S. in business in 1960
Harvard MBA 1963
took a job with Boise Cascade, worked various jobs, rose to chief financial officer in 1969 and was named senior v.p. in 1971
Bendix recruited him in 1972 -- he came on board as executive vice president and chief financial officer
In December 1976, he was named president, and the next month, when W. Michael Blumenthal went to Washington, Agee took on the additional titles of chairman and chief executive officer Bendix Corp.
had $3.6 billion in revenues in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 1978. Earnings were $328 million.
is in a variety of businesses, including automotive parts supplier, aerospace electronics producer, building materials maker, and equipment and tool manufacturer for the energy industry