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Jewish World Review Sept. 19, 2000 / 18 Elul 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

As summer ends, have the executives learned any lessons? -- This morning's column will end with a quotation that -- in light of the summer that certain prominent companies have been through -- you may find instructive.

First, though, some additional notes on this summer of trouble for those certain businesses -- whether they manufacture tires that fall apart, produce cigarettes that kill people, operate airlines that don't go where they are supposed to go when they are supposed to go there, promise telephone service that does not materialize on time....

You know the companies I'm talking about. For whatever reason, the summer just past has turned out to be the one in which the weaknesses of companies that all of us depend on have become glaring. Whether this is an anomaly, or a foreshadowing of things to come, we cannot be certain. But if this is just the beginning -- if companies whose quality and commitment to service were once a matter of faith are on their way to permanent skepticism in the eyes of their customers -- then we are entering uncharted territory.

Trust and faith have for many years had little to do with the tobacco industry; for the last 35 years, every American who has purchased a package of cigarettes has been explicitly told, by means of a message on the package, the harmful things the products inside will do to the user of those products. In the time since the $145 billion Florida jury verdict against the major tobacco companies this summer, we have discussed in this column on several occasions the question: Who is really at fault, in a legal sense? The companies that manufactured cigarettes they knew would hurt their customers? Or the customers who -- having been told that the cigarettes would make them sick and even possibly kill them -- continued to smoke anyway?

Beth Kendall, of Cape Coral, Fla., sent along another example of why the world should have known what it was dealing with when cigarettes were involved. She was looking through a copy of her mother's old "Garden Encyclopedia," copyright 1936, and found these references to nicotine:

"Nicotine is the most widely used contact insecticide. . . . Some of the insecticidal effect of nicotine is secured by using tobacco stems, dust and other by-products, either as a fumigant or as a mulch. Various powders and extracts of plant origin less toxic to man than nicotine are rapidly coming into use as contact insecticides."

And: "Nicotine-oleate [is] good for [killing] mealy bugs. . . . Nicotine powder, liquid, and impregnated paper can be used in fumigating greenhouses."

And: "Tobacco preparations [have] insecticidal value as repellants and also as contact and stomach poisons. . . . Nicotine fumigation [is] more expensive than using cyanide. . . . Nicotine is effective against aphids and thrips but does not control white fly and scale as well as cyanide. . . . Nicotine fumigation is most effective on still damp nights."

Must the public watch out for itself? Should the corporations that claim to serve their customers not be held responsible for the most essential decisions affecting human lives?

As this certain summer ends -- the summer in which the head man of Bridgestone/Firestone, whose corporate parent is now headquartered in Japan, is compelled to say, "I come before you to apologize to you, the American people, and especially families who have lost loved ones in these terrible rollover accidents" -- here is the quotation I referred to earlier in the column.

Many summers have passed since these words were uttered:

"An executive cannot gradually dismiss details. Business is made up of details, and I notice that the chief executive who dismisses them is quite likely to dismiss his business.

"Success is the sum of detail. It might perhaps be pleasing to imagine oneself beyond detail and engaged only in great things, but as I have often observed, if one attends only to great things and lets the little things pass, the great things become little; that is, the business shrinks.

"It is not possible for an executive to hold himself aloof from anything. No business, no matter what its size, can be called safe until it has been forced to learn economy and rigidly to measure values of men and materials."

The man who spoke those words was Harvey S. Firestone, who in 1900 founded the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio. Mr. Firestone is not around to witness the business events of this summer. He died in 1938.

We may be entering uncharted territory.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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