Viewpoint -- New Priorities

In the wake of Sept. 11, business doesn't seem so significant.

What many of us in the business world do to earn a living suddenly seems unimportant in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. two weeks ago that took the lives of more than 6,000 innocent people and inflicted unfathomable grief on their families and friends. We're not firefighters, police officers, doctors, or medical researchers. Let's not pretend that improving the supply-chain, tackling e-commerce initiatives, or making manufacturing processes more efficient is the most important contribution we can make to society. But I hope -- and pray -- that as we rebuild and restart our lives, our nation, and our businesses that we stop and ponder what should be the real purpose of work, what should be the real purpose for companies doing business. It's a question that Howard Lutnick, chairman of the financial-services firm Cantor Fitzgerald LP, asked himself after the sobering realization that 700 of his firm's 1,000 employees -- including his brother -- had perished in the fire and the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. According to Lutnick, he arrived at work late that day because he wanted to see his five-year-old son go off to his first day "at big boy's school" (kindergarten). Ignoring the burning fire, he raced up toward the firm's offices on the 101st, 103rd, 104th, and 105th floors hoping to help trapped employees get down. He was forced to abandon his valiant rescue attempt when the other tower was struck. "I think it is going to be a different kind of drive [to succeed] than I've ever had," Lutnick told ABC News reporter Connie Chung in an interview aired two nights after the tragic event. Why will his drive be different? Because Cantor Fitzgerald's surviving employees told Lutnick that they wanted to go back to work, in the midst of the tragedy, to figure out how to stay in business -- not for themselves, but for the friends they had lost. "There's only one reason to be in business" now, Lutnick tearfully told Chung. "We have to be able to . . . take care of 700 families" that lost a loved one. [It's] the reason they [our surviving employees] want to be in business. We need to figure out how to take care of [those 700 families]." It's a new vision, a new mission for Cantor Fitzgerald. Lutnick now wants his business to succeed not for personal gain, but to provide a source of revenue -- and profits -- for the families of his employees who were killed in the terrorist attack and for the families of the employees that remain. Let's hope more manufacturing executives and business leaders follow Lutnick's example. Because running a business shouldn't be about creating personal wealth. It shouldn't be about power. It shouldn't be about creating a lavish lifestyle for a handful of individuals, and it shouldn't be about trampling others around you to achieve your goals. Running a business needs to be about people. The purpose of profits is to create and then perpetuate an enterprise that prospers to reward the people who have contributed to that success -- whether it is the employee who makes the product, the one who develops a brilliant idea, someone who flawlessly executes a strategy, or someone who's a capable support person. Unfortunately, that's a moral obligation that executives too often forget in the face of competitive pressures. But what better time than now for a CEO to make the mission of his or her company the success of its work family. Never has the impact on an organization from what happens to its employees been more brutally driven home. In making the success of the work family its primary mission, companies can, once again, give real meaning and importance to what they -- and their workers -- do. Michael A. Verespej is an IW senior editor based in Cleveland.

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