St. Louis Post Dispatch: Motivation not all it's cracked up to be

"If I were selecting a businessperson to be Citizen of the Year, I'd go with somebody like Lew Prince." Lew is a longtime BSP member. 

By Bill McClellan
St. Louis Post Dispatch, May 2, 2011

The great Motivational Seminar has come and gone — my 70 tickets never arrived — and it was, by all accounts, well-attended. Perhaps this means that our region will soon be surging forward. Thousands of motivated St. Louisans will be a mighty force for change!

Or maybe not.

Last week's "Get Motivated!" event — a swarm of celebrity speakers and book-on-tape peddlers at Scottrade Center — may well have sent folks home brimming with inspiration.

But motivation can only take a person so far.

What about opportunity? What good does it do to be motivated if you can't find a job?

I worry about that. After all, David Farr received the Citizen of the Year award in March. He is the CEO of Emerson. He is best known for complaining about labor laws, environmental regulations and health care reform. In November of 2009, he spoke at a luncheon in Chicago and said, "What do you think I'm going to do? I'm not going to hire anybody in the United States." He would instead expand in what he called "best-cost" countries.

That's a heck of a message to send to all the young people graduating from college. Also, to all the young men and women coming home from our endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We're not hiring in the U.S.

This is serious stuff. Farr, and others of his mind-set, are talking about breaking a social contract. It's an unwritten contract, but it's real. It's what we've always told our young people: If you work hard and do the right thing, you'll have an opportunity. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but there is a job.

In Farr's defense, it really is cheaper to send work overseas. People in developing countries — "best-cost" countries — will work for very little.

On the other hand, Farr made $24.8 million last year. That's $476,923 a week. Figuring a five-day workweek, that's $95,384 a day. Which means $47,692 each morning before lunch.

I suspect Emerson could probably find a very smart man or woman in China who could run the company for $47,692 a year.

But my real complaint isn't with Farr. He is doing what contemporary executives do, which is squeezing every possible dime out of the company he runs.

I just don't know why we honor that behavior. Actually, I do. The people who bestow the honor are the previous winners.

If I were selecting a businessperson to be Citizen of the Year, I'd go with somebody like Lew Prince. He and Tom Ray are the co-owners and founders of Vintage Vinyl records.

Think about that. Two guys started a business. Farr, like most previous Citizen of the Year winners, didn't start anything. He took over a big business.

Ray and Prince started their business 32 years ago. They sold records. The business of selling records has changed. In fact, there are no more records. Furthermore, people can get music for free. Yet, their business continues. They have 24 employees.

It is certainly impressive that they have been able to evolve, but it is not their business acumen alone that impresses me. Prince has been outspoken this year about two important issues — health care for employees and the minimum wage.

He supports the notion of health care for employees. "Everyone should have health care in a civilized country," he told a reporter in March. He said he supported the new law, but didn't think it went far enough.

He has been even more outspoken about the proposal in the Missouri Legislature to undo the cost-of-living adjustment to the minimum wage and prevent it from rising above the federal rate of $7.25.

He wrote an essay for this newspaper in February. In that essay, he pointed out that Missourians voted overwhelmingly in 2006 to use a cost-of-living adjustment to raise the minimum wage. He asked, rhetorically, why some politicians want to hurt the most vulnerable workers in the state.

"They say it's to help small businesses. Well, I've run a small business in Missouri for 32 years and I say, BUNK!"

I always enjoy it when a business owner speaks up for employees.

In other words, I don't want to live in a "best-cost" country. I think society is best served when people are able to make a decent living and an unexpected illness doesn't send them spiraling into bankruptcy.

That's what our social contract has always been about. Young people don't expect to make $47,000 each and every morning, but they expect an opportunity to find a decent job with benefits.

Opportunity comes first. Then we can worry about motivation.

bmcclellan@post-dispatch.com, 314-340-8143

Copyright 2011 St. Louis Post Dispatch

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