The chainsaw falls on instrumentalism

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Chainsaw Al is obsessed with making money. Bill Gates is obsessed with computers. Who is the richer man?

They called him Chainsaw Al, or Rambo in pinstripes. But last week the chainsaw finally severed Al Dunlap from Sunbeam, the company of which he had most recently been chief executive officer.

I never met Mr Dunlap, but had nevertheless almost come to think of him as an old friend. For over a year now, I have quoted liberally from Mr Dunlap’s book Mean Business, when I wanted to illustrate the extremes of instrumentalism in business behaviour. After one talk, a member of the audience rose to his feet claiming to be Mr Dunlap. I looked at him with an uneasy mixture of relish and trepidation – who dares confront Rambo – but he was an impostor. After an Oxford lecture I heard one departing listener ask another “Al Dunlap isn’t a real person, is he?” I was never sure whether the man whose views I described was a real person, or a figment of the imagination of his ghost writer. And now, I suppose, I will never know.

Mr Dunlap’s training was at West Point, “the best business school in the world”. Still, he came to appreciate other business schools. Especially when a survey of students voted him the most admired chief executive in America. With unusual modesty, he expressed surprise. Dunlap’s first job was as executive officer of a nuclear missile establishment. Perhaps that was the only job in which he didn’t fire anything. After working for Sir James Goldsmith and Kerry Packer, he achieved fame by running Scott Paper for two years, drastically pruning its operations and finally selling the company to rival Kimberley Clark. His most recent company was Sunbeam, a manufacturer of small domestic appliances. The stock price jumped by 60% when he was appointed, he tells us in Mean Business. And now, it is more or less back where it was when he joined.

Mr Dunlap had no time for sentimental approaches to modern business. “The most ridiculous term heard in boardrooms today is stakeholders. Stakeholders! Every time I hear that word, I ask: ‘how much did they pay for their stake?’ ” A curious, and limited, view of life. Imagine the Al Dunlap manual of parenthood. “The most ridiculous notion in child rearing today is that parents have obligations to their children. Whenever I hear that, I ask ‘how much did children pay?’ “ Or the Al Dunlap guide to social relationships. “Friendship! Whenever I heard that word, I ask ‘how much did friends pay for my friendship?’ “

In Dunlap’s world, the only kind of relationship is one of commercial exchange: the only reason you might be under obligation to someone else is that the person concerned has paid you money. And there is no doubt that this is what he genuinely believes. “Sometimes, Packer would say to me, ‘Al, I have had this relationship my whole life! For God’s sake, there goes the relationship! What are you doing to me?’ ‘Kerry’, I’d say, ‘I came over here to do a job!’ “

Relationships are no part of business life. “If you want a friend, get a dog. I’m taking no chances, I’ve got two.” And the cover of his book shows him surrounded by his dogs, each one no doubt conscious of where the supper comes from.

Dunlap is ludicrous and embarrassing, at least for those of us who argue that business is a serious activity, intellectually challenging, morally defensible, and demanding of general respect. But in his self-parody, he raises fundamental issues about the nature of modern business.

For those who share at least part of Dunlap’s philosophy, business is exclusively instrumental. We may warm to his description of a woman’s moist-eyed thanks that the rise in the price of Scott Paper stock would enable her to put her children through college. And feel pleased that twenty years after he had left Sterling, the employees he had laid off brought him drinks to express their gratitude. But it is not these implausible encounters which drive Dunlap. “If you’re in business, you’re in business for one thing – to make money.”

The argument which Dunlap caricatures is that there is a fundamental dichotomy between the values of business and those of every day life. But yet, as the end of the Dunlap story demonstrates, it is not clear that the Dunlap view of business is successful even in its own terms.

I am not sure that Bill Gates’ recent book is a better read than Al Dunlap’s. But the contrast is instructive. It begins with the title: Dunlap talks of Mean Business, Gates of The Road Ahead. And of one thing you will be in no doubt. Dunlap is interested, above all, in money. Gates is interested, above all, in computers. Dunlap thinks of the established businesses he might close down; Gates of the new businesses he might set up. The latest stand off with the Justice Department is another reminder of Gates’ determination to dominate the world market for software. Dunlap displays no similar ambition or affection for toilet tissue.

And yet it is Gates, not Dunlap, who is the richest man in America. Success in business is rarely achieved by those who are the most naked in their greed. It goes more often to those who are passionate about the activity itself. Greatness in business, as in any other activity, is achieved by those for whom business is the end, not simply the means.

Dunlap’s business hero is Sir James Goldsmith. But in the pantheon of great twentieth century business figures, Goldsmith will barely merit a footnote. The names we will remember are Henry Ford, who made cars available to a mass market, Akio Morita, who brought consumer electronics into every home, and Bill Gates, who put a computer on every desk. All these business leaders made money for themselves and their stockholders, to be sure, but they made money because they first made things.

As Al Dunlap goes into lonely retirement, I almost feel sorry for a man whose epitaph is ‘if you want a friend, get a dog’. Even in business, you need friends sometimes.

Mean Business, A. J. Dunlap with Bob Andelman, Simon & Schuster

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