A Shocking and Shameful Lack of Imagination


Help me out here. I'm baffled.

Is corporate America really unable -- or unwilling -- to even try to do better for the country?

On Dec. 14, Lincoln Electric , the Cleveland-based manufacturer of welding technologies and No. 1 in the world since the 1930s, announced the 2012 bonus for its roughly 3,000 American employees.

Read the following five lines slowly.

  1. The bonus has been paid for 79 uninterrupted years in a row.

  2. This year, Lincoln Electric shared $99.3 million of pre-tax profits with employees.

  3. The average 2012 bonus was $33,915 per worker.

  4. The average employee earned $82,300 (including the bonus).

  5. No one was laid off in 2012.

Do you find that impressive? How about this?

In 2011, the picture was essentially the same. Ditto for 2010, 2009, 2008... 1997... 1979... 1956... 1948...

The actual numbers were different, obviously. When the economy did well, the bonus and total earnings tended to rise; in tough times, they shrank. But two things haven't changed since the 1940s.

First, Lincoln Electric has remained the world leader in its field: profitable, innovative, and steadily expanding across the globe (now 46 factories in 20 countries).

Second, due to the firm's corporate policy of guaranteed employment, no American worker has been laid off since at least 1948.

Surely, if you're running a company in America and you have a functioning brain, you're now asking yourself (at least) two questions: How do they do that? and Can I learn something from Lincoln Electric?

Apparently, no!

Since February 2010, Lincoln Electric and its CEO/Chairman John Stropki have been profiled in many major American electronic, Web, and print media outlets: ABC TV's World News Tonight, The Wall Street Journal, PBS NewsHour, Fox TV, NPR, Fool.com, Harvard Business Review, MSNBC, and more.

Despite that exposure, Stropki told me a few days ago, no one at his elite level of American business (or lower, for that matter) has asked him a single question about Lincoln Electric's phenomenal track record.

No one.

(I picked February 2010 because that's when Spark, the book I wrote about no-layoff policies and Lincoln Electric, was published. I had complete editorial freedom to tell the story and never took a dime from the company.)

Why haven't CEOs besieged Stropki by phone or dropped by his Cleveland office? His matter-of-fact answer is that running a company with a no-layoff policy is hard and big firms would have a hard time changing their operating stripes. (So... they don't want to make money decade after decade?)

Maybe Lincoln Electric is such a unique company on Planet Earth that despite all the wisdom embodied in America's hundreds of thousands of MBAs, there is nothing to learn from its management system?

Maybe a near-century as No. 1 in welding worldwide is an accounting trick?

Maybe there's a dark underbelly to life inside Lincoln Electric? (Hard work is the norm, that's true.)

Maybe it's the water in Cleveland?

But after asking a dozen more maybe questions, you'll find yourself coming to the conclusion I did: Corporate America is suffering from a near-criminal lack of imagination.

Lincoln Electric presents convincing and reassuring evidence that it is possible to run a very profitable, very large multinational business in North America by respecting your customers, employees, investors, and society at large. All of them.

It need not be a zero-sum game, the delusion embraced by too many of the nation's business leaders, especially in recent years.

They owe it to America to do better.


The article A Shocking and Shameful Lack of Imagination originally appeared on Fool.com.

Guest columnist Frank Koller does not own shares of Lincoln Electric. The Motley Fool has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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