Numbers Do Not Make The Man

April 22, 2002
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One of Grand Rapids Business Journal's most anticipated lists of the year appears on page B2 in today's paper. It is the Top Paid West Michigan Public CEOs list, and gives a financial snapshot of the past three years for some of the community's business leaders.

But numbers alone do not make the man. And make no mistake, it's a man's world at the top of public companies locally, but that's a different editorial.

West Michigan's public CEOs, from Jim Hackett to Jerry Johnson to Ken Rieth, make plenty of money. There are those in the community who will read this list and think it absurd that some people can make so much money over the course of a single year. Professional athletes and entertainers notwithstanding, these people are in the upper echelon of financial remuneration.

There are some who will ask, what does he do that I don't? Why does he deserve 10, 20 or 30 times what I make?

Again, numbers do not make the man.

Each of them are experienced leaders in their field, responsible for a company's profit and therefore quality of benefits and pay for those who work for them. There are those in life who can make hard decisions, and there are those in life who could never make a decision that would affect someone else's family and livelihood. West Michigan's public company CEOs make those decisions every day, and often far more than once a day. They continue to provide jobs for the workers that make up West Michigan.

The wit and wisdom to address competition issues and unforeseen circumstances —and do so while living in a fishbowl — is as rare as the CEO. The job is 24 hours a day and played out on a very public stage. There is no "down time." Many employees simply don't want that responsibility. Most people don't even want the responsibility of owning and running their own business.

Yet they are essential qualities for public company CEOs.

The extravagance of the Enron debacle opened America's eyes to corporate malfeasance. No one is perfect, especially when they say they are. But very public fiascos often skew public perception. Not everyone is selling millions of shares of company stock just six months before their company goes bankrupt. Not everyone is "creatively" manipulating employees' retirement plans just weeks before their company is shuttered for good.

It is those types of problems, however, that overshadow what most public company CEOs do well: provide for their employees and families while making their community a better place to live.

Local leadership is what makes us a community of residents, rather than a community pulling in many different directions.

Many of West Michigan's public company CEOs grew up here and were educated here. And many of these CEOs, who attended schools such as Calvin, Aquinas and Hope (among others), believe in the prospect of "community tithing." That is, giving back to the people who support you.

So, yes, the list on page B2 lays out in black and white the compensation for CEOs of West Michigan's major public companies. And, yes, the numbers undoubtedly will be fodder for water cooler talk for the rest of the week, if not the rest of the year.

But before belittling those public company CEOs for being all uppity and selfish, remember what many of them have given back to the community in terms of time and effort, trying to make West Michigan a better place to live.

It pays to be a public company CEO, and not just in numbers.

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