What’s Next

Dear Ethix Colleagues,

It has been almost two years (February 28, 2018) since I have been able to update the ethix.org website, and for that I apologize. My goal is to conduct a couple more interviews this year, and I have good plans to do that.

Let me tell you what I have been doing in the meantime.

In the spring of 2017, I was invited to write a book on the history of the ServiceMaster Company. In September 2006 I had interviewed Bill Pollard, the fourth CEO of that company (you can find that interview in the archives at ethix.org). Bill recognized that some of the early senior leaders of the company had died, and he called me to suggest I write a book on the history of the company. I reluctantly agreed (it was a major undertaking and I had not written a history book before), under the conditions that he would not pay me and that I would have final editorial control. To tackle such a project required doing so in as impartial a way as I could. We agreed to those conditions.

That book has now been published, and is available in hardback or kindle at amazon.com, under the title The ServiceMaster Story: Navigating Tension between People and Profit. It might be slightly less expensive at ChristianBook.com.

While I had known about Bill Pollard through personal meetings, the interview we did for ethix.org, and his books, I had no idea about the scope of the project. In the two and a half years, I did more than 70 interviews with people from all over the world, read 50 annual reports, 25 books on the service industry with connections to the company, files of film and speeches given over the years by leaders, and hundreds of pages of web resources. This made up the data for the story. Assembling the story with lots of anecdotes to make it real was the next step.

In many ways this is a wonderful story with application to any organization. The company started in 1929 by Marion Wade, a man with an eighth-grade education who had wanted to be a professional baseball player. But he had a passion for building an ethical business that valued the workers, a company that would last. Through a series of five leaders for the rest of the century, each one built on the work of previous leaders to create a global, publicly traded company with revenues of $6 billion by the end of the 20th century.

It was headquartered in the Chicago area, but ultimately had branches all over the US and in 40 countries. In 1985 and 1995 the Company was rated the number one service company in the world by Fortune. In 1998 it was rated in the top 20 most-admired companies in the world by the Financial Times. Harvard professor James Heskett wrote two case studies on ServiceMaster, stating it “has broken the cycle of failure [in the service industry], and has …provided training to people and attempted to deliver a level of self-esteem that many workers have never had in the past.” For the last 30 years of the century, ServiceMaster grew in revenue and profit every year.

ServiceMaster accomplished these things by putting ethics at the top, by valuing the workers and helping them develop. Profit growth was a supporting goal, not an end goal. Interestingly, in August 2019, the Business Roundtable CEOs signed on to a statement saying that maximizing shareholder value was not the only goal of business. ServiceMaster had already shown how to run a business this way.

Not surprisingly, the people at the company from top to bottom of the organization chart were imperfect. Thus, the story is real. The practices they created could withstand these imperfections, providing real insight for any business, even any organization.

Unfortunately, in the early 2000s the company brought in outside leadership that stepped back from the emphasis on the worker and on ethics. The company became private in 2006, and then went public again in 2013, but it is not quite the same. This actually helps make the case for the importance of the unusual practices of the company in the 20th century.

However, a number of leaders who developed what it means to be a leader while at ServiceMaster, are carrying on with what they learned, working today in organizations around the world. The story is still being written.

I have never taken on such a project as this, though it fits right in the center of what we have been doing at Ethix.org since our inception in 1998. I hope you can benefit from the book. Please send me some feedback.

And in the meantime, I will get back to work on the next issue for Ethix.

Best regards,

Al Erisman
Executive editor, ethix.org

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