While the day-to-day focus of most business leaders is on the bottom line, deep down most also hope to put a permanent stamp on the enterprise. Think Jack Welch at GE, Robert Lutz at GM or Mary Kay Ash, founder of the cosmetics empire that bears her name.
Few can leave a legacy like that of Milton S. Hershey, however, whose vision for both the company and community that bear his name lives today. A remarkable century-old document in the Hershey Community Archives describes a focus on product quality, consumer safety and employee welfare that still is guiding the company.
But there is a reason we have no Hersheys today: The world has changed.
Hershey was a towering figure in an age that included entrepreneurs like Henry Ford and George Pullman, who firmly believed that a contented — but controlled — workforce was the key to their success. They were pioneers in providing decent wages, housing and schools for their employees, but they also believed it was their right to tell those employees how to live. That never would be tolerated today.
Also intolerable today is the idea that the shareholder would take a back seat to the chairman of the board. The primary responsibility of the CEO today is to grow the value of the company. The 21st-century CEO who treats the company as his private domain doesn't last long.
But, most significantly, gone are the business leaders who used to play a dominant, active role in the community where their company was based. In today's global economy, CEOs spend more time on the corporate jet than in their backyards. They don't have the time to be visible and hands-on in local affairs.
We may be nostalgic for those lost days of the powerful business patron, but in truth, we have gained much from the change. A responsible, profitable company creates good jobs that put money into workers' pockets and, from there, into the local economy. That's the best legacy any CEO can leave.
We're fortunate that Milton S. Hershey chose the midstate to realize his business and community dreams. His path to success continues to offer lessons to entrepreneurs and executives alike, while millions enjoy the fruits of his efforts. But the exit of the "big" CEO from the community stage provides the opportunity for hundreds of others to step into those shoes and broaden the pool of ideas, causes and developments that affect our lives today.