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Bribery? Fudged financial reports? Exaggerated expenses?
A group of Omaha business leaders talked about these and other ethical issues they have faced in business during interviews recently with Creighton University business students.
The interviews were for the Greater Omaha Alliance for Business Ethics at Creighton, sponsored by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau.
Excerpts from the interviews:
David Brown, CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce
“There will come a time when you are asked to do something and you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach and you just know it's the wrong thing to do. That's your core. That's your focus. That's that line in the sand you don't cross. ...
“My wife and I flew out to California to meet with (an economic development company), and every chance they got, they tried to give us wads of cash, saying it was for ‘expenses' or anything else they could come up with. We always declined.
“After the trip we never contacted them again. They put us in a very uncomfortable situation, and I knew they were not the type of people we wanted to work with.
“A more difficult ethical situation was during the legal debates for gambling in Omaha. On the one side we have members that are very supportive of the jobs and investment that comes as a result of gambling. On the other hand I have a lot of members that are philosophically opposed to the whole concept of gambling.
“We had to work a process where we could find a middle ground somewhere. I found over time that my gut wasn't comfortable on either side of this equation. I felt, and our board felt, that it would be unethical for us to represent to the public that we had a consensus of our members that gambling was either good or bad.
“We came back with a list of things we felt were important on the issue. So while we couldn't take a pro or con decision, we are sure that these were their concerns.”
Janice Stoney, retired CEO of Northwestern Bell, Omaha Business Hall of Fame, 1994 candidate for the U.S. Senate
“When I talked to my peers who were all CEOs in Omaha, they asked me why I was (running for office).” In response, she said she asked why they weren't running for office, adding, “We've been beneficiaries all this time. At what point do we say it's not sufficient to serve on a local board and call it my community service? I did it because I thought I could make a difference. We need business leaders in government. ...
“As a society we have reversed the God, country, family and self priorities to placing self first. ... It will require greater involvement and self-sacrifice on the part of many if we are to survive as the great nation we have enjoyed and been blessed.”
David Truckenbrod, owner of Merchants Credit Adjusters Inc., BBB Integrity Award recipient
Integrity “means not only following the regulated guidelines for the debt collection agency, but going a step beyond and ensuring we act with integrity in all areas of business, from the person who opens the mail to the senior management team. This means creating a culture in the company that upholds the highest ethical standards. It requires constant monitoring and consistent training. ...
“Both business and consumer technologies are advancing at a pace never before seen. There are so many different forms of communication now that a balance must be found that utilizes these different forms of communication while not treading on the rights of the individual.”
Henry Davis, president, Greater Omaha Packing, son of Omaha Business Hall of Fame member Pennie Davis
In the late 1990s, Omaha packing plants were not part of a federal pilot program that quickly checked whether workers had a legal right to work. The Omaha plants “became a magnet for those applicants who did not have a legal right to work,” so Davis explained the problem to federal officials.
“Shortly thereafter, all beef processing companies in Nebraska were allowed to utilize the ... software program. This was an important ethical issue for me because I felt that all employers should have the same opportunity to hire those with a legal right to work in the U.S., and I felt that all employers should be using every available tool to only hire those with a legal right to work.”
Joe Moglia, chairman and former CEO of TD Ameritrade, Omaha Business Hall of Fame
When moving up to executive management at Merrill Lynch, he discovered someone in an upper-level position was cheating on travel and expense reports. “I fired them. If we are paying you almost seven figures, why would you exaggerate on those expenses? It immediately set the tone with the other employees that if I did it with this guy, I wasn't kidding about you taking personal responsibility for your actions. ...
“When Ameritrade bought TD Waterhouse from TD Bank in 2006 ... we originally decided to take what was the cheapest of what we were doing and what TD Waterhouse was doing and planned to save a few million dollars. ... After we had communicated the changes to the benefits plans, people were feeling that we stabbed them in the back by lowering their benefits. ...
“At the next all-associate assembly ... I said I didn't know that was how they felt, and I didn't realize we had gone that far. They were the reason why we were doing so great, so we couldn't let them down. ... Within 30 days we changed our entire employee benefits program.”
George Haddix, owner of Riverton Management Resources, Omaha Business Hall of Fame
A salesman misreported a sale, making his company's quarterly financial report look better than it actually was.
“It was a difficult thing to do, but I had to let him go. He was one of my best salesmen, but I could not let an incident like this affect the integrity of our organization.”
John H. Jeanetta, president and CEO of Heartland Family Service, BBB Integrity Award recipient
“In our business we deal with trauma, and if we have policies or systems that create more traumas, we are not helping in the right way.”
The agency worked for a long time with one family troubled by imprisonment, poverty and mental health issues, but eventually the family failed to meet the program's enrollment requirements. They appealed their dismissal from the program, and Jeanette faced a tough decision.
By not meeting the requirements, he realized, the family used resources that should go to other families in need and put the entire program in danger. He denied the appeal, based on that perspective.
Richard R. Bell, retired chairman and CEO of HDR Inc., Omaha Business Hall of Fame
“I grew up in a small town, and my grandmother taught me, ‘Always tell the truth, then you never have to remember the lies.' ... Tell the truth and the truth will set you free. ... Everything we do, I want to be able to read about in a positive light on the front page of the Omaha World-Herald. ... Short-term gain, long-term loss: Even at the expense of profit, we do the right thing at HDR.”
Wallace “Wally” Weitz, president, Weitz Funds, Omaha Business Hall of Fame
“Companies that press too hard to ‘make the numbers' can also make troublesome investments. An example that comes to mind is Countrywide Financial. We owned the stock and made lots of profits over the course of about 10 years leading up to the time of the mortgage meltdown.
“I had met (former CEO) Angelo Mozilo and bought his story of the self-made executive. ... But, I think the pressure to keep growing and to keep taking market share and to keep profitability up was a lot to handle. As I said, I don't believe people are inherently evil, but they can be susceptible to temptation and pressure.
“As an investment manager, the assumption was that they were acting with integrity and that their accounting was valid. Eventually it dawned on me that I might have been kidding myself and we sold the stock.
“We gave back a large portion of our long-term profits, but it would have been worse to hold on until it was acquired at a distress price. Being honest with oneself and having colleagues willing to challenge each other's assumptions is very important.”
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