The Business of Business

Like most Americans, I understand the value of commerce and the benefits that flow from private enterprise. I recognize that the profit motive leads to innovation, jobs, the provision of specialized services, and a general uplifting of the quality of life. By seeking resources to establish a business - resources from people who believe the business's success will help them improve their own conditions - society advances.

Or not. For here it matters exactly what we mean by "business."

On the one hand, there are the auto companies that for years built cars that were too big, soaked up too much energy, and drove American consumers into the arms of Japanese, Korean, German, and Swedish automakers. And that ultimately reached deep into the federal treasury so that all of us who did not buy their cars would bail them out, keep them operating, and keep their salaries high. As with the banks and other financial institutions that played clever, manipulative games, producing little of real value other than moving vast amounts of capital from A to B in a giant shell game and racking up massive salaries and bonuses as their games plunged the country into recession and drove "the little people" out of jobs and homes. These "giants" provide ample proof that not all products that can be produced should be produced and that not all services that can be provided should be provided. What was missing in those cases was a moral compass. There are those who argue that business is not about morality but only about profit and providing maximum return to shareholders. But that suggests that there are no real human beings - people who have to face themselves in the mirror every morning - at the helm.

And then there is "Jake's." Jake's is not General Motors or the Bank of America. It is a seafood restaurant perched between bay and ocean in the tiny town of Hull, Massachusetts, at the tip of Nantasket Peninsula. Hull, known mostly for its beach and boardwalk, is next door to Hingham, where I live, and the drive to Hull and Jake's is a central part of my Massachusetts life.

But this is not about Jake's, per se. It is about the business of business.

To get to Jake's is easy; to get into Jake's is a bit harder. Both spacious dining rooms are invariably packed, with jeans- and shorts-clad customers filling the entryway and spilling out into the parking lot. Booths and tables alike may be filled to capacity, a dozen at a table not uncommon. If AIG, Morgan Stanley, and GM are the ugly face of American business, Jake's is its saving grace.

This is not accidental, and the lesson Jake's teaches is all about what is right with our economic system and, by contrast, what is wrong with it.

Jake's has the best seafood I have ever eaten, and I've eaten a lot of it. These aren't your dainty little tidbits covered with cutesy sauces and creams: what one gets at Jake's are huge slabs of perfectly grilled fish - king salmon, swordfish, tilapia, haddock, you name it. Lobster, clams, crab, steamers. Onion rings to write home about. Pies that defy description unless the description begins with "yum." These are eaten in dining rooms that are loud and boisterous and joyous. And all of this is because to its owners, Jake's is personal.

Ed O'Brien, who bought the place and transformed it years ago, is 80 now. But "the captain" is still at work, taking names (sorry; no reservations), assigning tables, and overseeing every small detail of service. His wife, after all these years, remains at the takeout counter, dealing with the flood of customers coming to take fish home. Their son, Jimmy, oversees the bustling kitchen (nobody can grill fish like Jimmy O'Brien). Maria and Barbie help the Captain man the desk, granddaughters are among the many hustling waiters, a daughter-in-law bakes the pies. This is a family business: O'Briens are everywhere. O'Briens, directly or by marriage, oversee every facet of the restaurant from selecting the fish when they arrive at Boston's docks to the time when they end up on a lucky customer's plate. The prices aren't cheap because the quality is - well, it's the best fish you'll ever taste.

So what's the difference between Jake's, a marvel of a place, and the corporate giants whose ruinous behavior has put capitalism itself under a shadow? Here I will stop talking about the single institution that is Jake's and note that you or I could easily point to a dozen or more such places we are familiar with - restaurants, tailors, small merchants who sell everything from neckties to table lamps. What is special about Jake's is the degree to which it is not special, but representative of a particular attitude toward business.

All of these institutions seek profit - they have children and grandchildren to educate, health care to provide - but the business is about more than profit. Employees are treated so well they come back year after year; scholarship funds are set up for employees who do well in school; little league teams are sponsored. They do not serve inferior products or provide inferior service. They measure their own integrity by the integrity of the businesses they run. They seek profit but they do not pursue the maximization of profit; they may seek to grow, but quality matters more than size. They are the opposite of what many businesses practice and what many business schools preach.

For a good many years, my own political party, the Republican Party, spoke of its support for business in terms related to "the Captain," the tailor, the small merchant. Main Street rather than Wall Street, as the saying went. Over time, it has lost most of that focus: Republicans still talk of the virtues of the small-town banker, the local pharmacy, the dry goods store, but more and more they support policies designed to protect the corporate giant whose cavalier attitude toward quality, prudence, and responsibility undermine rather than enhance public appreciation for the business model. Corporations are government-empowered entities; "corporate" status is a government grant that allows the men and women who run these entities a means to escape much of the personal liability that might otherwise follow shoddy behavior. Yet a contention that such organizations have social responsibility is sometimes dismissed as a vaguely leftist hostility toward business and, indeed, toward the entire capitalist system of resource-seeking.

Charlie Wilson, who was the head of General Motors before President Eisenhower brought him into government as the Secretary of Defense, famously said that what is good for General Motors is good for America. Or at least that's how it is remembered. But in fact, the most telling part of that statement was the often-forgotten rest of the sentence: "and vice versa." To seek maximum profit by any means available is not only harmful to the nation (see "recession," "foreclosure," "unemployment"), it is also harmful to business (see "corporations, liquidated") and their managers (see "indictments"). It is doing what is good for America - and for Americans - that best serves not only the consumer but the corporation.

This disconnect between greed and entrepreneurship will not be solved through a legislative process nor by judicial intervention, though both may sometimes serve a useful purpose. In the end, it is a matter of reversing a decades-old mindset that has honored the high-roller and ignored the diligent. The answer is between the ears - of those who enter business and those who grant or withhold support for the products and services those businesses offer. If there is any lesson to be learned from the economic morass in which we now find ourselves, and into which we have been plunged by an army of amoral numbskulls, it is that it is not wealth, or size, or fame that matter but a commitment to values that transcend the blind pursuit of the buck and what it buys. If any corporate CEO wants to make the switch to values-based management, I'll be glad to take him or her to Jake's: my treat.