On a surprisingly infrequent basis, given all the material written and printed in this country every day, an article is published that takes on a life of its own -- timing is perfect in terms of broad interest, it is quoted as cited, it tells a story of today.
Such an article was printed in the July 27 edition of Fortune magazine, under the title: "Chucking It." It was an article about Kenneth Mason and his decision to quit the presidency of Quaker Oats Co. in 1979 in favor of living at an isolated island retreat in northern Minnesota.
What's unusual about Mason's case is that he had epitomized the work ethic all his life, rising to Quaker's chief operating post at age 54. He had made it, but then he quit abrupty after just three years at the top.
Many people, not just in business, have dreams of doing the same thing that Mason could afford to do. After moving into a job and doing their best for several years, the natural restlessness of Americans takesk hold and there is yearning for the new challenge.
It's a situation that is likely to become more commonplace in the next two decades, simply because there aren't enough top jobs in the economy to satisfy all the drive and ambition of the post-World War II baby boom population that is moving up the work force promotion ladder. Many of these persons probably will shift careers abrupty once or twice in their working lives after going as far as they can, then will start looking for new horizons.
While belonging to an earlier generation, native Washingtonian James P. Low recently found within himself the need for such a shift.Low, for 16 years "Mr. Trade Association" in a community where the trade association business has become a substantial economic sector, has stunned the industry by announcing his retirement from the presidency of the American Society of Association Executives at age 53.
Some people in the trade association business were so shocked by Low's decision that they tried in vain to discover a conspiracy. This appetite was whetted by the knowledge that two other top officials also were leaving the trade association industry's own trade association. Lots of rumors made the rounds.
When people looked at the situation carefully, however, they found only Low's simple desire to try something new after 27 years in the association business.
"I'm bored; I've done it here," Low said in an interview at the ASAE's downtown headquarters building -- which he helped develop. "I will leave with great affection, great love . . . I'm not burned out . . . but I'm looking for a new moutain to climb."
Low conceded that he had signed a new five-year contract only last year.
"I had planned all along to get out in 1982, but I was talked into signing," he said. "The building was still being completed, the directors wanted me to stay. And then after 27 years, there was more of two speeches a week [throughout the United States and overseas], travel 50 percent of the time, on the telephone listening to members' problems . . . my heart just wasn't in it."
In the end, it was the decisions of ASAE's two other top officials to move on that convinced Low his time had come. Leonard J. (Buck) Hoyle, the ASAE executive vice president, takes over this month as executive director of the Hotel Sales Management Association International. And ASAE Public Affairs Director John Vickerman is taking over at a group specializing in ship cruises. Both men had been seeking top jobs of their own for some time.
Low said the departures of Hoyle and Vickerman created a unique opportunity for him to move on and give a successor the chance to handpick his or her own team.
"It's time for a new era, a new group . . . it's only fair to the new person not to have people in the top jobs that I picked. And the board decided it makes sense," he added.
"With deep regret," is how the board said it make sense, said ASAE Board Chairman Mortimer Doyle, who also heads the International Snowmobile Industry Association. Low's formal retirement date has been set far enough in the future -- next March 31 -- that he will serve during an interim search period both in his role and Hoyle's.
ASAE's board has named a selection committee to find a successor, and Doyle said he plans to announce a decision at the group's annual convention in October. Low said the new president probably will be on the job late this year or early in 1982.
ASAE has 10,000 member trade and professional organizations, up from 2,500 when Low took over 16 years ago. If Low has any regret, it's announcing his retirement plans at a time when ASAE has suffered a small fiscal-year deficit. The group was close to financial collapse when Low took over, and he brought about stability. With belt-tightening in the recent year, many trade groups have cut backp on staffs and budgets, and this has affected ASAE. But Low said ASAE will add $250,000 to show a surplus in the coming year.
Low's new mountain will be a partnership with Gerald McManis, long a friend and head of prominent consulting firm here with 70 employes that conducts executive searches, marketing and economic studies, mostly for corporations and government. The two men will set up a new company, Low & McManis Inc., that basically will be a one-man shop for Low.
Low said he wants to concentrate on public affairs, helping to build coalitions on specific issues and problems."Government relations is not one-on-one lobbying anymore, you need the coalition, the grass roots," he stated.
A graduate of the District's Wilson High School and the University of Maryland, Low headed the association division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before becoming chief executive of ASAE. He's excited about the coming months. "I've get a new thing I can do . . . why not get out while you're on top and do something you really want to do?
Mason, meanwhile, picked Low's alma mater in College Park a few days ago as the location for his first public comments after two years of reflection.
Speaking to a conference of business school educators at Maryland, the former Quaker Oats president outlined what he called a new "theoretical basis for American business conduct." He characterized much criticism of business in recent years -- focused on a lack of concern for needs of society and failure to establish high-enough ethical standards -- as misplaced. "After all, very few, if any, major business corporations were formed with a commitment to feed the poor or save the environment or address any of the other social issues of our time," Mason stated.
In his view, businesses should be judged by how well they use their corporation's assets productively. Today's business students, he told their deans, need a sounder economic orientation because the "superb business system" in the United States is being run by people who believe in "a wide variety of economic theories that simply don't make sense."
In particular, Mason ridiculed many corporate leaders who insist on the value or regular profit increases, quarter after quarter, year after year.
"The top executives of an incredibly larger number of America's best-known corporations spend hunderds of man-hours a year, year after year, making sure not only that this year's annual earnings increase is consistent with last year's, but that this year's thrid quarter doesn't fall below last year's third quarter, or that this year's third quarter isn't so good that next year's third quarter won't be able to top it or that this year's third quarter won't embarrass this year's fourth quarter, and so on and on," he pointed out.
This is irrational behavior, unsound economic activity and an almost totally unproductive use of real assets, Mason declared. He also condemned the preference of corporate executives for short-term market appreciation of stock over dividend returns to stockholders. In this environment, stock markets have become a medium for speculation rather than long-term investment, he argued.
And, he said, current research purporting to explain declingin American productivity is in error because the effect of poor management decisions (such as building the wrong types of cars) are not given proper blame for their role. a
Finally, Mason criticized what he called the "most socially important operating theory in American business today" -- that executives somehow will be judged in the end by their private persons, their family lives, hospital or church work rather than by their business decisions. This attitude permits a business leader to allow pollution of a city's water supply until stopped by the courts. To Mason, it is a key failure of his generation of corporate executives, and one reason why he stepped back from the top.
Current business leaders either were not taught or they did not grasp what Mason said is self-evident theory: that a "true measure of managerial success in whatever enterprise you're in is how good a return you get on the assets you employ -- which means all the assets you employ, not just the financial assets but the people assets, the intellectual assets, the environmental assets."
"I hope that doesn't happen with the next generation of business leaders," he told the College Park meeting. "Because using assets with intelligence, with thoughfulness, with compassion and with concern for the future is what business is all about. It is also what economics is all about. In fact, it is what life is all about."