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June 1, 2004

The Ill Effect of Big Corporations

Alan Imhoff

Several decades ago there was a popular song entitled "Where have all the flowers gone." It was about a certain circle of life dealing with war. To rephrase that title, I would like to suggest, "Where have all the leaders gone?"

I do not mean those people we elect to political office every so many years, who may or may not be "leaders" in the true sense of the word, but rather the community leaders.

One of the more interesting effects of globalization and mega-mergers is the increasing loss of local leaders from the banking community, as an example. Throughout our history most bank presidents were seen as local community leaders with their positions held in esteem by the not only their customers, but by most members of the community.

Granted some banks grew, while other failed, but on the whole a thriving community could be measured by the number of "local" banks in town. These individuals were often among those who were looking to the future, who saw growth as a necessity in keeping a community vibrant, not to balance sheets. Yes, there was self-interest, but it was often tempered by the reality of community service.

I guess one could ascribe the moniker "good old boy network" to them. But was it such a bad thing? The local banks were among those that supported many infrastructure improvements; paving dirt streets, adding walkways, public water systems, volunteer fire companies, gas street lighting, public parks. The list could on go and on.

It was not just the banks, but other local businesses as well. Working hard to stay in business most firms depended on other local businesses, often supporting one another in a joint effort. Where it made sense, many businesses banded together for the common good.

From among the ranks of business owners were many non-elected community leaders taking on difficult tasks, volunteering time and money to achieve a better place to live and work; individuals that were true leaders, not because of their positions, but rather because of their personalities or even more rare, their visions.

Today, the Frederick community seems to be at a low point in the number of this old-style community leader drawn from local businesses. Why? How many medium to large businesses are truly local anymore?

Through success, most of our "local" businesses have been swallowed up in the last decade into the mega-financial corporations that permeate every community. While some still may have a local "face," most are just another "big box" institution, the Wal-Mart of their particular industry.

So why, you may ask, is this a concern?

The concern that is becoming more and more evident is the lack of "leaders" in the community that can commit time, expertise or money to the local community without having to go back to "corporate headquarters" to get permission. This growing lack of local leaders to fill the ranks of volunteer boards of directors for many of our non-profit organization is but one example.

Fewer and fewer local businesses of medium to large size simply do not exist, having been merged, acquired, consolidated, leveraged bought-out or just plain sold to ever increasing mega-corporations. Individually these mega-corporations give us better products and/or services at cheaper prices, hopefully. As a community, there are fewer and fewer local leaders who have a direct interest in the community in which they live.

Sure, many of these mega-corporations give some money locally, most often it seems in sponsored golf outings, and, yes, they will assign some manager to interface with the community. But how long will the manager be here; two, three years? With hundreds of communities across the nation, or world, the mega-corporation only has so many dollars in the budget for local "goodwill." So what is so special about Frederick?

Yes, we have new businesses here. Yes, we have new leaders. But do they have the time and resources, let alone discretionary funds to be actively involved in the community?

We all know the demands of today's business do not afford many of these smaller businesses the luxury of spare time, let alone spare cash. While volunteerism is a big part of our way of life here in Frederick, commitment as a volunteer is often lacking because of all the demands our society places on individuals, let alone leaders.

Outside of our elected officials can you name one community leader who is known by the general public? One who can motivate people to give time or money to a particular cause? Is there one businessperson who instantly comes to mind as an agent of change for a better community?

I know they are there, I have worked with some of them, but like many other things that change brings, they are becoming fewer and fewer in number.

Perhaps it is time to resurrect the "good old boy (and/or girl) network" of a group of local business people who are willing to come to the front and advocate for the community at large. To find individuals, who are willing to articulate a vision, put the time in to develop it and find the funds to achieve it.

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