One man’s legacy of ethics, integrity, and loyalty remains, not only for his family but also for all the families for whom he willingly gave up his job.
Standing amongst family, friends, and finger food typically served at funeral visitations, I engaged in the usual handshake-hug-“thanks for coming” routine. Obviously saddened by the loss of my grandfather, I sipped the last bit of the terrible church coffee, choked down a triangle of a pimento cheese sandwich (no doubt a staple at Southern funerals) and felt the hand of one of my lifelong best friends on my shoulder. He said, “Hey, man…my uncle just told me about what your grandfather did when he was at the steel plant. Incredible, really. He’s a legend around here for that, you know? That just doesn’t happen anymore.”
Not knowing the story, I asked my dad about it later, and it turned out to be the most incredibly inspiring story about a man who faced down fear, loss, and rejection simply to do the right thing. It just so happened to be my grandfather’s story.
He was a tall, previously lanky man (prior to the weight he traded for his pack a day habit) with salt and pepper hair always perfectly combed to the side with the assistance of some gel I am sure he had used since the 1940s. An Auburn engineer, and almost as proud of that school as he was of his wife of 52 years. Plain front khaki pants, held up by a khaki canvas belt with a gold US Navy buckle accompanied only by button down shirts. Every day. A cardigan if it was cold, and a handkerchief tucked neatly in his back pocket. American made cars, really cheap scotch, practical shoes (Rockports), and talk radio. He was classic, predictable, and brilliantly simple.
Here is his story…
In 1968 a Belgian steel manufacturer was coming to our small town. He was a respected man in town and was solicited to be the project manager and later the plant manager even though that wasn’t his training. From the ceremonial shovels in the ground to a trip to Belgium to the hiring of every person who worked on the floor to produce the steel used in manufacturing tires, he was the soul of that factory. It wasn’t easy, though.
My father remembers the police taking him to work as he was constantly threatened by union members who tried to gain control the factory. He walked through the picket lines and bullets (yes, bullets shot into the building) to preserve the rights of his workers to join or not to join. Ultimately, he handled the negotiations and preserved that right and protected his workers and their families.
He was in way over his head, but he cared for his people, and that was what mattered. That place thrived under his lead. But, more importantly (to the business and his values), he was there when family members died, when something was wrong, when something was right. The word “shift” did not matter. If he needed to be there, he was. He protected his workers. He was a servant. They would have done anything for him. Little did they know.
Not long after things were cruising along, “the Belgians” saw the factory needed a business manager, someone with a suit and tie and a big desk. That is what they got. He apparently made a quick reputation, and not a good one. He was the polar opposite of my grandfather. “We’ll do it for you CB, but not for that [expletive]” was probably said more than once. My grandfather, out of respect for the factory was respectful to the new plant manager, but still felt an immense obligation to serve his team.
There was an economic downturn, and the need for the steel products was slowing. The plant was caught up and new orders were not rolling in, but Christmas was. The plant manager, the businessman, ordered the plant to maintain operations. My grandfather stood for his team, for the families of his team, for the kids who wanted their dads at home on Christmas. It was the right thing to do.
The plant manager refused, threatened my grandfather, and called Belgium. My grandfather’s home phone rang that night: “Don’t make us do this CB. He wants to fire you over this.”
Word got out. Apparently, it was huge news in town. My grandfather’s team was outraged. There were some stories of the workers potentially revolting against management. My grandfather knew this was an easy decision. My grandmother didn’t immediately understand, but supported him. They did it anyway and offered him a position at another plant. He declined. He was fired on Christmas Eve, 1969. He did not tell his family until after Christmas.
Some said my grandfather gave away everything. The money, the position, and the security of his hometown. He knew better.
If he would have asked his team to work over Christmas (what amounted to two shifts), if he would have thrown away his values and his obligation to the importance of family, if he would not have stayed true to his ethics, he certainly would have thrown everything away. It was bigger than just two shifts of operations. It was about ethics, integrity, and values.
He was always led by “the right thing to do,” not the bottom line or some depth chart. It is the core of ethical business: there is no manual. There is only what is right.
What does that mean today? There are now dozens of books published that report the most successful businesses are those led by a set of core ethical values, not by rules, regulations, and heavy-handed managers. Strong ethical values make solutions to everyday problems easy and solutions to the hard ones even easier.
“That just doesn’t happen anymore.” Maybe it should.
Photo by arteunporro/Flickr.