Friday, August 27, 2010

Entrepreneurship, Doing the Right Thing and Pressure

From the Encyclopedia of Entrepreneurs, "Alva R. Kinney was raised in the small town of Crete, Nebraska. After graduating from Doane College in 1897, he went to work at Crete Mills, a local milling company. After a brief career as a traveling salesman, Kinney and some associates purchased Ravenna Mill in 1904. Over the next 15 years, he constantly upgraded the mill, which became quite successful."

The story goes on. Alva Kinney and the Ravenna Mill is the beginning of ConAgra. ConAgra, traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is now a $21.5 billion company with nearly 43,000 employees.

I've spent the week on ConAgra and much of what I've written hasn't been very flattering. I began to wonder about the company and how it started. Was the Founder a "good guy?" Did he have any idea what he began would turn into a world powerhouse controlling much of the food we consume? Did he care about his customers and the families that ate the products he produced? Digging into the real history of Alva Kinney would certainly be an interesting journey and one that doesn't fit into the time allotted to write today's blog. I'll leave those queries for someone looking for a documentary to produce.

More importantly, what about the people that work for and run ConAgra today? There are 43,000 of them and what are they like? My experience in working with large companies (in a different and also much-maligned industry) is that the people who work there everyday get up in the morning and want to do a good job and want to do good in the world. I've yet to find any truly evil people with a mission to profit by hurting others. I have met several people who are in a position that requires them to make hard decisions based on the bottom line. And, sometimes, when making bottom line decisions based solely on profit or the value to shareholders, some things along the way get trampled. Employees, customers, animals and the environment.

Some would claim this is the problem with capitalism. Others would say it is related to politics and policy and the stock market. The why doesn't really matter. The people do. We can, each of us, make a choice to do what has always been done, do what is expected of us, or make a tough choice and do something different. I'm guessing ConAgra and the people who work there are not evil. Yes, some (if not many) of the products they create could be more healthful for their customers. Yes, they could use their considerable power and position to help get whole, natural food to more people. Yes, they could revolutionize agriculture to be earth-sustainable, animal-friendly and human-beneficial. And, until we create other opportunities and ways to measure success, we'll be left to rely on the people. The most powerful of them? You.

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