One of the many wonderful things about the state of Maine is the number of fascinating and sometimes famous people who live or spend time here without much fanfare or widespread public awareness.
Maybe it’s a function of living in a small state of roughly 1.3 million people that makes us feel like we already have a sense of all the interesting people who call Maine home, and that occasionally has us surprised to learn about some of the individuals who have been here for some time without drawing a lot of attention.
Mason, who died at age 97 earlier this month, seems to have lived a remarkable life in several respects: he was a World War II veteran, had a loving wife and daughter, lived in Mexico for a few years, wrote short fiction and he rose rapidly through the business world as an “advertising boy wonder.”
But of the many interesting chapters of Mason’s life laid out in the obituary and reporting, the one that particularly stood out to us — and seems to have resonated the most with others — was his abrupt decision to quit as CEO of Quaker Oats in 1976, then one of America’s largest companies, after only three years at the helm. He told the New York Times then that he “would like to reserve a percentage of my years to do some thinking about the world and business and social problems,” and became an outspoken critic of American business priorities and the relentless pursuit of a “profits-are-everything philosophy.”
Speaking to a group of business school educators, as reported by the Washington Post in 1981, Mason argued that the “true measure of managerial success in whatever enterprise you’re in is how good a return you get on the assets you employ — which means all the assets you employ, not just the financial assets but the people assets, the intellectual assets, the environmental assets.”
He also made the equally solid point that “using assets with intelligence, with thoughtfulness, with compassion and with concern for the future is what business is all about. It is also what economics is all about. In fact, it is what life is all about.”
This perspective, though nearly 40 years old, should continue to carry weight with corporate America and the business leaders of today.
Perhaps there isn’t a direct line between Mason and current companies that take on a commitment to social good and responsible resource management as part of their business model, but surely there are echoes of his message in Maine today — if on a smaller scale.
A Forbes profile earlier this year of Freeport-based Maine Beer Co., “This Maine Beer Company Grew To $15 Million By Doing The Right Thing,” explained how the Freeport brewery has committed to supporting environmental causes, using solar power for its energy needs and providing robust health care and paid leave benefits to its 50 employees.
“We have no problem attracting people, or with retention,” Maine Beer Co. CEO Steve Mills told Forbes. “That’s a business philosophy that makes sense, especially in Maine where you have an aging population.”
As Maine confronts persistent and intensifying workforce needs, companies like Pittsfield-based Cianbro have taken an active role with in-house training for its workers workers. Efforts like the Cianbro Institute not only help a company address its own labor needs, but also have ripple effects that help create a more skilled state workforce.
A lesson here, both from Mason and from Maine companies, is that businesses don’t have to sacrifice responsible management of resources — whether its people or the environment — in pursuit of profits.
Mason hoped that Americans would “encourage, not evade, discussion of those problems that arise when the activities of business conflict with the needs and concerns of society.” We continue to share his hope today.