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Boards are People Too: Giving Thanks

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"Sometimes you gotta take a moment to appreciate the good out there."

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CEO's are just people.

That's an obvious point that's easy to forget, particularly for those of us working in finance. We see firsthand the hubris that shapes the Evil Rich stereotype. We know all too many folks like Michael Eisner; guys who seem to have lost any and all perspective regarding their humanity.

They gleefully soak up shameful options packages, giving them enormous percentage ownership stakes of companies that pre-date them by generations. They pontificate on the appropriate manner with which to treat "little people" with no sense of irony whatsoever, apparently not realizing that the very act of distinguishing themselves from "the unwashed masses" screams of their inherent pomposity. Those are the types of CEO's we tend to see in the press and it's too easy to tick off a list of chiefs who fit the imperious stereotype.

But not all CEO's are like that. There are plenty of corporate king-pins who understand that they are ultimately stewards of employees and shareholders. I know because I had dinner last night with one of them and last week I accepted the resignation of another.

The first is my dad, Ken Macke. My dad grew up poor, smart and hungry. He went to work for what was then Dayton's, starting when it was a 7-store chain and growing with the company to become CEO of what is now Target (TGT) in 1983 when Ken was 44 years old.

Though my dad was fired 11 years later he never gave in to what had to have been a feeling of betrayal. He never regretted resisting entreatties to fight off the 80's retail LBO craze and the potential personal windfall that it promised. He said at the time that the LBO's would end poorly and, even if they didn't, the leverage would have meant "cost-cutting" which translated into firing people. If he ever walked into a Target store and felt as though the chain that he'd helped build into a 1,000 store juggernaut should by right belong to him, he never said so.

As I watch him now, manfully facing the physical and mental destruction of his Parkinson's affliction, I believe that he chose the correct legacy for himself. He created jobs. He felt more than generously rewarded for doing something he loved and he never enriched himself at the expense of others' livelihood. Whatever is left of his once magnificent mind, I know it is at ease with his legacy as a man. When you see someone you love facing mortality you come away understanding how important that personal legacy is.

This week I accepted the resignation of another CEO cast against stereotype. Glen Shank, the CEO of Duckwall-Alco (DUCK; a micro-cap retailer on whose board I sit) retired after some 30 years with the company, 17 of which were spent as CEO.

When Glen became CEO of DUCK the company was struggling under the burden of one of the aforementioned LBOs. Glen lead the company through a subsequent bankruptcy and, against rather long odds, made the company a survivor where many others had died. In so doing he saved hundreds of jobs and a large part of the livelihood for Abilene Kansas, the hometown shared by Glen and Duckwall (not to mention the birthplace of President Eisenhower... I highly recommend a tour of Ike's library).

Glen resigned last week in order to allow his time to be spent where his heart is, sharing time with his beloved wife as she fights cancer. She's the love of his life, his former high-school sweetheart and his soul-mate. Despite his wrenching pain Glen had the perspective to know that walking away from a company he'd spent his life fighting for was the right thing. For Glen, knowing the right thing is the same as knowing what to do. "Personal reward" isn't part of the equation.

I'm shamelessly biased about both of these men. They are Old School in all the best ways. While criticisms can be (and have been) made of their performance as CEOs no one can ever accuse them of not living the example in terms of doing the right thing for the Team.

I wanted to take this opportunity on a sort of lazy trading day to publicly thank Ken and Glen for the lessons they have taught me about being a Good Person. Both of them have my fervent prayers as they fight their good fights.

Less personally, I simply wanted to hold them up as examples of the standards which we should expect and demand from our business leaders. For me, thinking of the lives these two (and a few others, I hasten to add) helps take a bit of the cynical edge off the top.

At the very least it reminds me that not all of the "Big People" think of themselves as such.

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Position in Duckwall-Alco (I am an insider at the company and offer NO ADVICE regarding the shares)

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