H. Fisk Johnson, recipient of the 2012 L. Joseph Thomas Leadership Award, speaks about the power of creating goodwill
H. Fisk Johnson, CEO and chairman of SC Johnson, is determined to uphold the values that have been at the core of his family-company’s success for five generations: Doing what is right and doing what is good.
Johnson, recipient of the 2012 L. Joseph Thomas Leadership award, spoke as keynote speaker for Johnson’s 6th Annual Alumni Awards Recognition Dinner held at Guastavino’s in New York City on January 24, 2013. In his presentation, titled “The Goodwill of People, the Only Enduring Thing in Business,” Johnson said that while most corporate leaders would say their role is to maximize shareholder value, he works hard as he can to engender trust in his company and make it an instrument for the greater good.
“I just don’t see [creating shareholder value] as the ultimate purpose of our enterprise,” he asserted. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t make difficult decisions that highlight successfulness to stay competitive, but … we’re about something much larger and more important.”
Johnson gave several examples of how the creation of goodwill has produced dividends over the years for the now $9 billion-plus household products company. In one dramatic instance, employees in Chile were so grateful for the help that the company had extended to their families in 1960 after a 9.5 magnitude earthquake, that when Salvador Allende came into power 10 years later and wanted to nationalize multi-national companies, the employees barred the doors to the factory and wouldn’t let the Marxists in.
“They camped out in that factory for a week, never leaving it, in order to protect it from being nationalized by the government,” Johnson recounted. “As a result, we were probably the only multi-national that survived as a nongovernment entity at that time.”
Political drama notwithstanding, many acts of goodness can be quite simple, but still mean a lot to people. For example, about 25 years ago, there were plans for a company factory in Venezuela to build a new wing, which would mean cutting down a particular tree. When Johnson’s father, Samuel Curtis Johnson ’50, visited the factory and saw how much employees loved the tree for supplying the much-needed shade during their sweltering midday breaks, he quickly made the decision to save the tree and move the construction in another direction. “To be honest, I don’t think my dad gave that decision a second thought,” Johnson said. He said that to this day the feeling of appreciation remains, and there is now a plaque dedicated to his father in front of the tree.
“I believe in business you can both be highly successful and be committed to the greater good,” Johnson affirmed. “If you endeavor to have that ethic of earning goodwill in the forefront, even in the most adverse and difficult situations, you will find the most fulfillment and quite possibly the greatest success.”
He said his father would be very proud of this recognition from Johnson and Cornell and accepted the award in his honor from Johnson Dean Soumitra Dutta and Dean Emeritus L. Joseph Thomas, for whom the award is named.
Susan Spielberg is a freelance writer in New York City who has covered many Johnson events there.