Tag Archives: corporate

A Connecticut Lobbyist In Obama’s Court

There has been plenty of griping and grumbling over the past twenty-four hours about the President’s appointment of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. While he may be an idol of corporate America, Immelt appears to be an unlikely champion of American job creation. “Since Immelt took over in 2001,” Shahien Nasiripour reports in an article on Huffington Post,

GE has shed 34,000 jobs in the U.S., according to its most recent annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But it’s added 25,000 jobs overseas.
At the end of 2009, GE employed 36,000 more people abroad than it did in the U.S. In 2000, it was nearly the opposite.

To make matters worse, Connecticut-based GE has not exactly been focusing its investments on American innovation and growth: in 2008 and 2009, Nasiripour points out, GE decided “indefinitely” to invest earnings abroad, while booking losses at home: as a result, General Electric enjoyed a negative tax rate in 2009 and a low rate of around 5 percent in 2008.

It stands to reason that more inducements and allurements, in the form of corporate tax breaks, are in the works to help focus Immelt and other corporate leaders on job creation. To help bring some of those foreign investments home, Immelt and other corporate titans will most likely continue to push for making the Research and Development Tax Credit permanent. They give the impression they are holding the spirit of Thomas Edison hostage, and will only release him if their conditions are met.

You might be forgiven for asking whether this is really the best way to spur American innovation, or whether Jeffrey Immelt and GE really have America’s best interests at heart. I’m sure Immelt believes he does; but can he, really? Maybe it all depends on how you sweeten the deal. Immelt himself reassured analysts and investors yesterday that he will always put GE first: “My commitment to GE and my leadership at GE, that doesn’t change,” he said on a conference call. He knows, I suppose, that no man can serve two masters.

The disturbing truth is that there really isn’t any great conflict of interest here: GE’s interests are not so far from American lawmakers’ interests. This happy consensus is largely the result of GE’s lobbying campaign, which in 2010 amounted to $39.3 million. $9 million of that campaign was dedicated to lobbying around a single project: the F-136 propulsion engine.

Developed for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet (a big $382 billion project), the F136 propulsion system is GE’s “alternative” to the F-135 propulsion system developed by Pratt & Whitney. An alternative. That is, there are no plans to use GE’s F-136 engine in the fighter jets. Pratt & Whitney won the government contract for the F-35’s propulsion system. You’d think that would have resolved the matter.

But these things have a momentum all their own. Funding for the F-136 started as an earmark in a defense bill, and grew. The Bush administration tried to kill the F-136 engine; Secretary Gates called it a “boondoggle,” and President Obama promised to veto any defense bill that included the GE engine. Robert Gibbs yesterday reiterated that the engine is “not something we need.” But GE, arguing that competition drives down costs, has lobbied and continues to lobby for its engine, running ads, working both sides of the aisle, and spreading its message through the press.

Newly elected House Republicans are not going to stop the F-136. Congress has already funded its development to the tune of $3 billion, and funding will continue unabated through March 4th of this year. And just yesterday, a GE spokesman told ABC Newsthat “newly elevated leaders are even more likely to keep the engine program afloat.” It remains to be seen whether, come March, the President can or will stand his ground.

Trending Towards The Gray

I’m watching Procter & Gamble stock today, looking for some reaction on the trading floor to the announcement that Robert McDonald will succeed A. G. Lafley as CEO. The market did not exactly raise a huzzah or hurrah at the news yesterday, which ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and on the AP wire. P&G finished slightly down. It was a gray day.

Maybe traders and investors are waiting for today’s official announcement before reacting, but when have you known Wall Street to wait? Maybe McDonald just isn’t seen as an inspired or inspiring choice; but I refuse to believe that. After 29 years at P&G, McDonald now serves as Chief Operating Officer of the sprawling consumer products giant. He has an impressive military background (West Point, 82nd Airborne), and a degree in Engineering. He is a logistics man. In his tenure as COO, McDonald focused on making P&G’s manufacturing and transportation network more efficient. He implemented a monitoring system to track trucks and reduce empty truck miles. And he made efforts to move production to emerging markets – another push for virtuous efficiency (or cheaper labor, depending on your perspective and your politics).

These are not the actions of an empty suit. McDonald is clearly someone with a deep and hard-earned knowledge of how P&G works and the expectation is he will make a concerted effort to institute new discipline across the company. No small task, given P & G’s size, breadth and depth: the company makes everything from my Braun coffee-grinder to dish soap, Gillette razors, potato chips, AA batteries and cosmetics; even the diapers your child is soiling right now are probably made by P&G. Imagine directing all that traffic, or simply trying to bring the whole thing into focus. The company claims people around the world use its products three billion times a day. By my reckoning, that’s about 35,000 uses every second of every day.

That makes the collective shrug yesterday over McDonald’s appointment all the more puzzling. Or maybe that shrug was the intended effect. P&G certainly could have made a big splash if it wanted to, by choosing Susan Arnold over McDonald. Arnold was often mentioned as a likely successor to Lafley until she left P & G in March of 2009 (motivated, no doubt, by the fact that she’d been passed over. The succession process had been two years in the works; the writing must have been on the wall sometime in 2008). Arnold was a P&G superstar. She started out selling dish soap (a brand assistant), and gained the highest rank of any woman in P & G’s 168-year history. But wait, there’s more: she’s openly gay, according to her profile on Wikipedia. (These are the wages of success: to have one’s sexual preferences detailed on Wikipedia.) Think Carly Fiorina meets Ellen DeGeneres. Think of the cultural capital the company would have reaped: over-the-top praise from big media outlets, eager to portray themselves as socially progressive; the lashing and futile threats of boycotts from the Religious Right. At the very least, it would have been a good day at the circus.

There may be a glass ceiling at P&G, but Arnold came pretty close to shattering it. There’s no questioning her competence, and it’s likely she was passed over not because of some institutionalized sexism or homophobia, but because of the business she was in. She came up through the beauty and cosmetics line (look for institutional sexism there, if you must), a business that flourished under Lafley; but there is a suspicion that in hard times, Cover Girl and Pantene won’t do as well as some of the more essential consumer items. Some investors had begun to question whether the acquisition of Gillette had made the company unwieldy, too big to succeed. The future of the company doesn’t lie in Arnold’s bailiwick. So it might have been as simple as that. The McDonald appointment suggests a new sobriety about the marketplace, a shift in focus or a correction of the Lafley strategy. (Since Lafley will stay on as Chairman, it’s a subtle suggestion, at best.)

But doesn’t the P&G succession story also suggest something larger and more significant? Something about the mood and tone of the country right now? I’m tempted to see in McDonald’s ascent something like the start of a trend — away from the superstar CEO, and towards the nuts and bolts operations guy. Less sizzle, more logistics. A similar restraint seems to have played into the thinking behind the choice of Fritz Henderson to lead GM through its dark days and into Chapter 11. There are doubtless other examples.

It’s sometimes said that the operations-minded are too immersed in the details to see the big picture; but sobriety, details and logistics might be exactly what we’re looking for after the housing bust, the financial crisis, the Madoff affair, the private jets, all the CNBC hype and John Thain’s $1,400 wastebasket. And it may be what we’re looking for, more broadly, in leaders: think of it as a trend toward the gray, more Ike, less Dubya. George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld could never have conceived, let alone plan D-Day; Eisenhower would never have invaded Iraq without a postwar plan. Obama is a rock star, to be sure. But many like him for his sobriety and evenness of temperament; he is unflappable, and he likes to make careful distinctions and discuss things coolly, so much so that before the elections some right-leaning pundits were praising his “conservative” instincts. (That’s over.)

Remember when Ronald Reagan famously told us it was morning in America again? Now, it seems, we’re just happy to hear that it’s a gray day and that nothing too out of the ordinary is happening.

The grid in my garden

When I moved house at the end of August, I decided to forgo the land line and rely entirely on wireless for my telephone service.

Even the most basic land package from Verizon seems overpriced, the legacy of a bygone era when telephone customers didn’t have many options. Besides, I already do most of my telephone work on my blackberry; the signal in the new place is strong; and I use cable for my internet connection (because it’s faster than DSL, not because I like the cable companies any more than I like Verizon).

Verizon’s wires still run through the place, previous residents and tenants over the past half century having installed a telephone in nearly every room. I’ve traced the wires from their origin on a pole just on the other side of the fence at the far end of our garden. The wires run the length of the garden, through the branches of trees, winding together in some places with creeping vines, weighed down in others by the heavy summer growth. They reach the house at a central hub or switch box, at which point they creep up and across the brick walls, where they find entry, through the brick and into the house. Once inside, the lines follow the trim and molding, angle to mimic a corner, and master the contours of every room’s interior, until they reach a jack.

The lines are held in place with staples. I have already spent some time removing these staples and pulling telephone wires out from the walls, cutting them close to the little holes where they emerge, and generally trying to rid the place of them. (I’ll need to do the same with all the television cables running into the house, with the exception of the one carrying my internet connection.)

We’ve gotten so accustomed to having all these lines and cables and cords creep through our homes that we no longer realize just how intrusive all this old wire technology is. The wires are unsightly. They ruin the molding and get in the way of painting. And now they’re dead: they no longer carry a signal or a voice. In certain moods I see them as reminders of absence, of lost connections, of loss.

I get a certain satisfaction from removing the wires inside the house, but now I’m wondering what it would take to get Verizon to clean up its equipment, take down the line that runs to the house from the pole in the back of the garden, pull down the lines that run up the back of the house, remove the switch box, and get all its gear off the property.

So far as I have been able to determine, Verizon’s ownership of the telephone wires is not really in question, even though regulatory changes from the 1960s through the 1990s have required the telephone companies to “behave neutrally” and to allow other service providers (like ISPs) to access their wires. Yet it also appears that the law of trespass is not entirely settled when it comes to telephone lines.

Airplanes and telephone lines once tested the law of trespass; they required exceptions and accommodations. But things change. A previous property owner allowed Verizon to string lines across and above my property. What if I now deem them a nuisance? And imagine what might happen to those easements and allowances if hundreds or thousands or even millions of property owners were to ask the telephone companies to take down their lines.

Most people probably consider the lines and cables and wires on their property none of their concern. In exchange for services, we’ve allowed the phone and power and cable companies to encroach and build on our property; and we’ve grown used to seeing the stuff everywhere we go.

That is not likely to change. New technologies (like fiber optic) and bundled services will most likely allow the phone companies to convert and upgrade rather than tear down the infrastructure they have in place. But I’m not interested. I want the grid out of my garden.