When American business has been asked for its views on key policy issues over the past few years, one of the most often-seen faces at the White House has been that of Reginald H. Jones, chairman of the General Electric Co.
As head of one of the nation's largest corporations and chairman of the prestigious Business Council, Jones has been an articulate and influential spokesman for corporate America, able to dispense no-nonsense advice and deliver business support in return.
This Wednesday, after 41 years with GE, the British-born Jones, 63, will retire formally to his home in Greewich, Conn., where he plans to remain active as a director of several corporations. He has been chairman of General Electric since 1972.
With Jones' retirement -- and that of Du Pont Co. president Irving Shapiro, who is scheduled to step down the day before -- comes the end of an era of business leadership. The two men pushed corporate America into a more open and active role in government policymaking and in responding to public issues.
Last week, just before his retirement, Jones talked for nearly an hour, leveling some parting shots at his colleagues and issuing some warnings for the Reagan administration, which he's supported both during the campaign and in its first few weeks in office.
The biggest problem in American business today, Jones said, is the sharp decline in the quality of U.S.-produced goods, a factor he attributes largely to a "management malaise" that he says has permeated corporate suites in recent years and inhibited executives from taking steps to stay ahead.
The only hope for correcting it: Revamp the thinking in corporate boardrooms, Jones says, so directors and stockholders recognize they sometimes must forego short-term profits to make the kinds of needed investments that will "enhance the long-range opportunities of the corporation."
American industry also can learn a lot from the Japanese about improving quality and productivity, particularly in doing more to involve employes more directly. Achieving a turnaround, he says, "can be done only with tremendous cooperation between labor and management."
Jones sidestepped direct questions about his company's benefitting from a low-interest loan from the federally financed Export-Import Bank. However, he offered a novel -- albeit expensive -- plan for ridding the international market of such loans altogether:
Rather than cutting back on Ex-Im's budget, Jones said, Congress should give it enough funds to provide U.S. industries with the same heavy subsidies that foreign governments give their companies. Within a short time, he theorized, there would be new international negotiations to eliminate these breaks.
Jones' warning to the Reagan administration regards business support of a key element of the president's new tax-cut proposal -- a plan to provide companies with faster depreciation writeoffs, a move that would benefit primarily heavy industry, which is facing expensive modernization costs.
Jones conceded that business is solidly behind the bill now. However, he predicted some defections later when other industries that wouldn't benefit as much from depreciation writeoffs try to push for alternatives, such as a general cut in the corporate tax rate or a tax cut for capital gains.
He also called for a rollback of key federal regulations to the point where the government contents itself with mandating only minimun safety and environmental standards -- and uses tax incentives to persuade companies to go beyond them. He said firms should be free to decide how to meet the standards.
At the same time, he conceded, "All thoughtful businessmen recognize that there have to be some regulations in place that prescribe minimum standards for safety in the workplace, for the ambient air, water, things of this sort. They're all accepted today. It's the length to which we go that's the issue."
The GE chairman's complaint about the decline in quality and "management malaise" in American corporations amounts to a rare bit of introspection by a major corporate executive. But Jones, a spare, highly articulate no-nonsense sort of man, has built a reputation as a thinking man's business leader.
Along with Shapiro and a handful of others, he's been regularly sought after by the White House -- during the Nixon, Ford and eventually the Carter administrations -- for advice on major economic policy decisions. And he's been a perennial witness on Capitol Hill on economic and tax issues.
In the 1977 fight over the controversial labor law reform bill, which would have expanded labor unions' power, Jones was one of the few corporate moderates to bolt business' no-never stance and seek to work out some sort of compromise. He was unsuccessful, as it turned out.
And he's started a one-man campaign to persuade U.S. firms to change their accounting and other aspects of their overall corporate behavior im recognition of the impact of inflation. GE now looks at all its profits and investment figures in terms of what they owuld be after adjustment for inflation.
In joining consumers in complaining about the quality of U.S.-made goods, Jones argues that one of the major reasons for the decline is that stockholders -- and, ultimately, directors -- have been too preoccupied with short-term profits to make the costly investments that are needed to keep pace. s
"What we have today," Jones says, "is a bunch of money managers who are under tremendous pressure from Wall Street to have every quarter a little bit better than the last, and I'm not sure it's realistic." If you're going to make long-term improvements, he asserts, proftis occasionally may have to slip.
Jones complains bitterly that this profits-at-any-price quest has brought on a spate of illnesses in American business -- not only the decline in quality, but a falloff in productivity, a slump in corporate investment and a lag in research and development.
How do you turn that around? "To me, that puts the onus squarley on the board of directors," Jones says. Corporate directors must "encourage management to make investments that will enhance" longer-range opportunities -- even if thay mean some diminution of profitability in the short run."
Jones also wants the government to provide "a climate that is conducive to business" by revamping corporate and individual tax laws to improve the rate of return on investment and encourage more long-run planning. He's particularly adamant about reducing taxes on capital gains.
Jones' warning about possible business defections from Reagan's tax-cut program marks the first major chink in a previously solid front by business in support of the plan for a speedup in depreciation wwriteoffs. So far, if the measure has any corporate opponents, they've remained quiet about their stand.
However, the GE chairman expressed confidence that Reagan quickly would agree to changes if he thought it were necessary. "If you look at his record as a governor in California," he said, "you come to appreciate that he is not an ideologue -- he is also a great compormiser."