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For the week of Sept. 8, 1999 through Sept. 14, 1999

Hanging out with the common folk

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

Let the Hollywood wise guys top Bruce Willis on this one.

Not only was Willis starring in the "The Sixth Sense," being shown inside his Liberty Theater in Hailey, but Willis was "starring" in the lobby behind the candy and popcorn counter the other night.

Yep, a theater staffer didn’t show. So Willis did what once was common in business—he showed up (in signature jeans and T-shirt) and pitched in to keep customers happy and his small business humming by dishing out confections.

Willis inevitably gets a world of good out of occasionally communing with the nickel-and-dime crowd. Understandably, he struggles to maintain humility when he’s paid more per minute of film time than many executives are paid in a year.

Hands-on CEOs who stay in touch with plain folks, and not rely on vice presidents to keep them informed about the real world, seem to have the best run American companies.

When I was a teenage office boy for now-defunct National Airlines at its Florida headquarters, and later as a cub reporter at The Miami Herald, wise and venerable mentors offered advice I’ve never forgotten: Find ways to stay in touch with customers and employees who make a company what it is.

I tried applying that wisdom throughout my career. As a newspaper editor and publisher, I answered my own phone. I spent less time in my own office than in other departments, including the nighttime pressroom and riding on circulation trucks, and tried to accept as many speaking invitations to small groups as possible.

One of my fondest memories of a hands-on executive is of multi-millionaire Edward W. Ball, in his 80s, trustee of the duPont estate (which included the Florida National Bank chain, Florida East Coast Railroad, St. Joe Paper Co.), who lived alone in an ante-bellum mansion, Southwood, on more than 10,000 acres outside of Tallahassee.

After a destructive hurricane churned through his property, Ball hired woodcutters to chop fallen trees into firewood. He placed an ad in the local newspaper offering it for sale and listed his home telephone, whereupon he answered the phone and took orders.

And there’s Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines: his company regularly tops lists as being best managed, highly profitable and with exceptional employee morale.

Kelleher’s secret is he never loses touch with customers or employees. He insists on goofy voice messages on Southwest reservation phone lines where people get a chuckle while waiting. He periodically takes Southwest flights to visit with passengers and serve peanuts.

Pity that too many politicians have forgotten hands-on public service, except when running for office and they need votes. Most of the time they hide behind spin doctors and press secretaries who take the heat and tell us what Congressman Blowhard thinks.

Murphy is the retired publisher of The Arizona Republic and a former radio commentator.


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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.