Analysis

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

For a different perspective on the career of Stanley O'Neal, we have Chicago Tribute columnist Clarence Page. He recently wrote a column about the former CEO.

Clarence, how you doing?

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hi. How are you, Farai?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great.

So what about this whole idea that doesn't necessarily take a lot of people, All you need are a couple visible role models to make a difference.

Mr. PAGE: Well, I think that that make a difference. It is - perceptions are important and Americans has seemed to have a perception of rising to the top, of having a possibility, that opportunity more than any other country, it seems. And it is true that there's a real gap here as far as African-American certainly, in the perception that they can break through that glass-ceiling. So that's why Dick Parsons and Stan O'Neal, folks like that, are important to me, to my son, to other African-Americans who want to know that, in American, anyone really can grow up to be president, at least of a corporation.

CHIDEYA: So your recent column said that O'Neal's departure from Merrill Lynch might be as much of a sign of progress as his initial appointment. What do you mean by that?

Mr. PAGE: By that, I mean something - and I've since learned that a branch Ricky has said something similar with the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson, and Frank Robinson also later on, baseball manager - the same thing. But the real breakthrough is not just when the first black is hired but when the first black is also fired because it is evidence that they're going to be held for the same standards of accountability as anybody else and thus, they are not a token who's going to get all kinds of extra breaks or a figure head who doesn't make any difference.

I mean, obviously, Stan O'Neal made a big difference as you just heard. When the company loses a lot of money, responsibility for that is going to land at the person at the top and Stan O'Neal was at the top, and so he has to go albeit with $161 million golden parachute.

CHIDEYA: Well, on that score, you talked about the CEO of Ben & Jerry's, who also broke the color barrier, left two years later. And you wrote: That's how the chocolate chip cookie dough crumbles. You can benefit on your way up. And if you play your cards right, you can collect a lot more than cookie crumbs on your way out.

So it's not as if you got a little violin playing for Stanley O'Neal, do you?

Mr. PAGE: Yeah. Nobody is passing the hat for him. I think that a dough(ph) - at all candor, African-Americans look up and say, hey, whoa, wait a minute, you know. Is this first hired, first fired, you know?

As you just heard, O'Neal is undoubtedly only the first CEO of what are probably going to be at least several whose heads will role because of big losses in this subprime lending venture. And the fact that he happened to be the first certainly resonates with those of us who've got long memories.

But it is certainly true that - just look at the bottom line, he's being held of the same kind of standards that other CEOs have been held. You look at Nationwide Lending. They've had a terrible year and the various others. And their CEOs are viewed as being in jeopardy now because of it. So this kind of thing is really a standard at that level.

CHIDEYA: What importance does it have beyond symbolic to have someone at the top of the pyramid, in the sense, you know, over the course of a CEO's tenure. How much do they generally shape an institution, or do they just continue to roll the ball along? Are there a lot of mavericks out there who would shake things up from top to bottom regardless of race?

Mr. PAGE: Well, I think that they all - CEOs are marked by their style. They have very different styles, just like Dick Parsons and Stanley O'Neal had two different styles.

O'Neal was that sort of a maverick, rose from Southern poverty all the way to the top, and he stepped on a few toes here and there. And so to some folks say that, you know, as long as the company is making money, he was able to get away with a lot.

Now, and especially with this deal he cut with Wachovia without going through the board first that this left him vulnerable for the skid to be greased for - to send him out of the door. Whereas Dick Parsons has always been a consensus builder and is leaving pretty much on his own but just in a circumstance where the fellow who is his designated successor, is viewed as a kind of guy who's going to shake things up more at Time Warner. And so that apparently is why Dick is leaving a little earlier than he had originally planned. So you get a lot of variation there.

CHIDEYA: Very briefly. When Dick Parsons leaves, and it sounds as if you're certain about this, will he be at all tainted by some of the financial hits that AOL Time Warner took after the merger?

Mr. PAGE: Yeah. Let me tell you the reason why I'm certain is because of the financial press has been pretty uniform in their reporting on this. And that - yeah, as far as the taint goes, you know, what's really remarkable is how well CEOs do even after their corporations have had really bad years. I mean, I go back to Lee Iacocca as someone who had up years and down years. But it's remarkable how you get a certain star status that is quite apart from what you actually produced because with this corporate - these publicly held companies, a lot of times, the board and the stockholders want to have a star name up there at the top, even if it's somebody like, say, Donald Trump, just to pull up one name that folks can say, hey, he's had more bankruptcies than that you can imagine. I mean, (unintelligible) …

CHIDEYA: Well, Clarence…

Mr. PAGE: …he does very well, too.

CHIDEYA: Thank you so much.

Mr. PAGE: Thank you. My pleasure, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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