SOMEONE I PASSED ON TOBACCO ROAD
If this is your first post, welcome. You can find previous posts on the site, HERE. I hope that the posts interest you enough to continue with me down Tobacco Road, and to invite your friends to join us.
“Ease Does Not Build Character; Adversity Builds Character.” —Robert Kirby, CEO Capital Guardian, October, 1979
Occasionally, I learn something new and impressive about people I met on my long journey down Tobacco Road. I wish that I had gotten to know them better, to hear about their experiences, and to appreciate them more.
At RJR, I met once a year with the board. One of those eighteen people was William S. Anderson, the CEO of NCR Corp. He didn’t say much, but he had an air of dignity that always impressed me. I never had a conversation with him and knew little of his background.
In 1986, the RJR board puzzled about naming a new CEO. Their decision-making was muddied by internal political infighting that made them uncomfortable. The book, Barbarians at the Gate, said:
“Bill Anderson, chairman of NCR Corporation was the kind of international businessman that others could only pretend to be. Anderson had grown up in Shanghai and spoke several Chinese dialects. He had spent four years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II, and afterward was chief witness at a war crimes trial that sent thirty of his Japanese captors to prison. He had seen heavier scenes than the succession mess, at which he seemed slightly bemused.”[i]
Two years later, the RJR board had a bigger dilemma as they decided who would buy the company. This was a highly visible, controversial deal that put the board at risk for a lawsuit that might easily top $200 million liability per board member. If the board was uncomfortable in 1986, we can imagine their concern now. I do not know, but I can guess that Anderson was again “bemused.”
Anderson’s obituary in the Wall Street Journal explains why he might not have taken the boardroom politics as seriously as others did. He HAD “seen heavier scenes:”
William S. Anderson was starving in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II when he received career advice that sounded promising. At the time, subsisting on small amounts of rice, occasional scraps of meat and a spinach-like vegetable the prisoners dubbed “green horror,” he wasn’t certain he would survive long enough to have a career.
Mr. Anderson, who died June 29 at the age of 102, impressed his bosses (working for NCR) by managing rapid growth in Asia. . . In 1972, NCR’s board reached across the Pacific to name him president of the parent company. . . He soon rose to chief executive and chairman, even though he had made his career entirely outside the U.S.
William Summers Anderson was born March 29, 1919, in Hankow, China, now part of Wuhan. His father, an engineer born in Edinburgh, designed and operated an ice-making plant in Hankow. His mother, the daughter of a tea merchant, was Eurasian. When William was 6, his father died. As a teenager, he was sent to a British-style school in Shanghai.
As Japanese troops advanced deeper into China in 1937, he and his mother fled by train to Hong Kong. He found work as an internal auditor at a hotel company and enrolled in night school to study accounting. That led to a job at an accounting firm.
When Japanese troops invaded Hong Kong in December 1941, he was a member of the Hong Kong volunteer defense corps, backing up regular British troops. After the Japanese snuffed out the British resistance, Mr. Anderson and others were imprisoned. Among their chores was improving an airport runway with picks and shovels.
Undernourished, Mr. Anderson suffered from swollen feet, fevers, and chronic skin sores. He passed part of his time talking about business with a gregarious British prisoner, George Haynes, who had been NCR’s Hong Kong representative and urged Mr. Anderson to consider a career with the company.
In late 1943, Mr. Anderson and other prisoners were shipped to a camp in Japan. The passage was difficult. “With many cases of dysentery, almost universal seasickness and no toilet facilities, it was a nightmarish scene,” Mr. Anderson wrote in a 1991 memoir, “Corporate Crisis.” In Japan, the prisoners worked in a factory making steam locomotives and were often beaten by their minders. One assault left Mr. Anderson’s left eye swollen shut for three days.
At one point, the Red Cross delivered packages including tubes of shaving cream. Some of the famished prisoners promptly ate it.
In September 1945, after Japan surrendered, Mr. Anderson was treated on a U.S. hospital ship, where he found the showers “indescribably refreshing ...”
In 1947, asked to testify at a war-crimes trial of prison-camp leaders in Japan, Mr. Anderson identified one of the defendants by the nickname of Fishface. A defense lawyer asked why he didn’t know the man’s real name. “Well, you see,” Mr. Anderson recalled replying, “we were never formally introduced.”[ii]
Anderson’s history underscores how easy it is for us to think an “inconvenience” is a “crisis,” Few of us have ever really faced what Anderson did. His history reminds me of a story from the 2009 banking meltdown:
Goldman Sachs CEO Llyod Blankfein, speaking on September 14, 2008 to a Goldman aide, who had said he couldn’t take much more following weeks of market turmoil and two days of meeting with Fed officials: “You’re getting out of a Mercedes to go to the New York Federal Reserve; you’re not getting out of a Higgins boat on Omaha Beach, so keep things in perspective.”
There is a decent shot that the aide didn’t know about Omaha Beach. In 2004, near the 60th anniversary of D-Day, a Gallup poll asked: Where did Allied troops land for the D-Day invasion? Only 40% of 18-29 year-olds gave a right answer. It has gotten worse.
Next time we are stressed about our 401-K or the difficulties of business or we find ourselves in a tough spot, we need to think of a 17-year-old kid climbing out of a Higgins boat with bullets bearing down on him. About how he felt when his best friend was hit, but he had to go on, when he saw blood in the water and on the beach and had to go on and when he thought about whether there was a bullet out there with his name on it. And …we are going to remember how lucky we are.[iii]
[i] Burrough, Bryan and Helyar, John. Barbarians at the Gate, The Fall of RJR Nabisco, page 60. New York: Harper Business, 2008.