October 11, 2015

End of the Year Observations

Although I usually post a blog on a public policy issue, this end-of-the-year blog will be a combination of personal, public policy, and business observations. The one thing I can say with certainty is that 2009 evolved in a very different way from what I expected when I stepped down from the Executive Chairman position at Pitney Bowes a year ago.

The only thing that happened as I anticipated was that I would disengage emotionally from Pitney Bowes very rapidly, because that is who I am. Once I leave an organization, I leave with fond memories, great friendships, and insights of lifelong value, but I leave the organizational responsibilities completely behind. I am not a person who is nostalgic about what I once had or did, and this was no exception. Other than that, everything that happened was either a surprise or a disappointment.

  • The biggest disappointment was the way the health care legislative process transpired. As the leader of a coalition created late in 2008 who intended to play a major role in the health care reform debate, I came to the conclusion that any serious advocacy was a waste of time. The legislation had some good elements, such as an enhanced focus on prevention, thanks to Senators Dodd and Harkin and those colleagues on both sides of the aisle who care about prevention, and there were some modest efforts to improve health care quality and delivery.

However, the entire focus on universal, affordable insurance was misdirected. First, we cannot give everyone affordable insurance until we attack the fundamental drivers of cost, which was not done. Second, the designs of the individual and employer mandates were flawed, and will end up taking us in the direction of greater financial insolvency, like Massachusetts. Third, the public option is nothing more than an extreme expression of distrust a significant minority of our elected official population have toward insurance companies. Their distrust may or may not be well-founded, but the public option is the wrong way to solve the problem.

It became clear to me early in the year that positions had largely hardened, that the legislative process was about scoring political points at the expense of others, and that many good principles would get sacrificed to get 60 votes in the Senate, which is what has happened. There was very little interest in listening to new points of view once the legislative battle began. So I withdrew, other than participating in attempting to get one very sensible amendment put into the legislation.

  • My other disappointment was seeing Wyeth, a company whose board I joined in April 2008, disappear as a result of an unsolicited tender offer from Pfizer. The board did the right thing for shareholders to negotiate the offer we ultimately accepted, and Pfizer will clearly have more capacity and cash to fulfill the promise from the research Wyeth had under way. However, it is sad to see a great company with great people disappear, and to see some of the best of those people lose their jobs as a result.
  • I was surprised how good the technology for doing my work has become. It is easy to make appointments and to schedule travel. It is relatively easy to be a mobile worker, and to put together speeches, presentations, resumes, multi-media communications, and research materials. If I were in charge of any large organization, I would be pushing the IT function far more aggressively to use the technology that is now available and reliable. I also would use assistants far differently than I did when I was at Pitney Bowes.
  • I was amazed at the creativity, the profit focus, and the productivity of the people at the small, start-up companies with which I had contact. Dossia, the personal health record business started by eight companies, including Pitney Bowes, has made amazing progress in the past year, although it still has a long way to go, and has a superior offering to its competitors.
  • I am watching many large organizations aspire to achieve more entrepreneurial, fast-moving decision-making by downsizing rapidly. I believe that is an extremely difficult result to achieve. Pitney Bowes has been an unusually entrepreneurial organization, which generally maintained its ability to innovate, even as it downsized during my tenure. However, getting acquainted with many large organizations all around the country, I am seeing those who remain inside these organizations getting more cautious as they watch others lose their jobs. Rather than getting out more with customers and trying to learn more about what works, they are getting more of a bunker mentality, spending more time in internal meetings, and taking more time to make simple decisions at a time when those who move faster get bigger rewards. I believe many large organizations will fail once the economy improves, simply because they have been too slow afoot when the opportunity for capturing rewards from innovation was greatest, which is the time we are in right now.
  • I have become far more resourceful, and have watched our children became far more resourceful, in responding to these difficult times. My older son had his car stolen when he moved into a new apartment in Los Angeles, but proceeded to buy a less expensive, older car and pocket the difference between his insurance proceeds and the lower selling price of the newer car. My younger son became far better at online selling, and made significant money during the last few months he was home. More importantly, he learned a lot about the need people have to buy more high-quality used items, and the way they need to be treated as customers. My daughter became a much more confident musical performer and increased her ability to earn money and to do community service. They probably would have found these skills anyway, but the bad economy accelerated their learning curve.
  • I also learned to think about new business opportunities in a different way. For example, could charities benefit from better tools for online auctions to get more unrestricted money? Would we all benefit from lower-calorie, organic, healthier foods that people eat on the run? These questions prompted me to make small investments in two start-up companies.
  • I came to realize that my real passion is helping improve the health and well-being of people, and that the best way to do that is to work on the non-medical drivers of health. I believe individual and community interventions on the prevention and wellness side will be key to this. This insight is leading me to a very different plan for 2010: a fellowship at Harvard, a focus on community health interventions here in Connecticut, and a focus on investments in the performing arts, where the telling of stories changes attitudes and behaviors faster and more permanently.
  • Finally, I started to engage in some projects that will be fun, and hopefully, make money and help get me launched in some new directions. My older son and I completed a film script which we are now trying to market, (and would welcome any reader’s help), I have co-invested in a completed movie called Fog Warning ( a suspense-thriller/horror film), and am involved with a reality TV incubator/production company.

2009 was a crazy year in many respects, but I actually felt liberated by my ability to withstand what it brought and to craft new ways of solving problems and finding opportunities. 2010 should be an even more interesting year.

In my next blog, I will get back to talking about broader political, social, and economic trends that will provide a backdrop for some of my thinking.