I finally got around to watching “Social Network”, the story about the founding of Facebook. As those who have seen the movie know, it portrays the principle founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, as a predatory egomaniac willing to sell out his friends in order to make himself and his company the dominant player in his industry. He is totally driven by his goal to be number one and nothing will stand in his way. He cares not a whit for relationships that do not help him meet his goal. He is quite willing to lie, cheat and betray to be successful.
While the details in the movie are open to debate, and Hollywood always seems to play fast and loose with the facts, my experience says that there is probably a lot of truth in the message that Zuckerberg was not a nice guy. When I met Bill Gates back in the 80’s he came across just like Zuckerberg. In fact, when I was watching the movie, I had flashbacks to my meetings with Gates. Larry Ellison of Oracle has a similar reputation. At Intel, the nice guy founders, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, made the single-focused, driven Andy Grove the CEO.
The old saying is “nice guys finish last” and while it is not always the case, there is some truth to the saying when you are talking about the creation of major corporations. Beyond the examples above, think about the Robber Barons of the last century. Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie would have been right at home with Gates, Zuckerberg and Ellison. (As an aside, we now remember Carnegie more for his libraries than his ruthless, anti-labor stands and thanks to Melinda, Bill Gates may be remembered more for his fight against deadly diseases than destroying his competitors.)
So what does this have to do with Oregon? Well the only one here that fits this model of super aggressive, dominating personality is Phil Knight at Nike and Nike has done quite well thank you. After that it is hard to find a company created in the past 50 years in Oregon that has come close. Meanwhile, in addition to Microsoft, Seattle has Starbucks and Amazon.com. At the same time, Oregon has lost and continues to lose many company headquarters to outside acquisitions; big timber companies like Louisiana Pacific and Weyerhaeuser, banks like U.S. Bank, and dozens of smaller tech companies. Even today, one of our remaining bigger companies, Mentor Graphics, is under attack from Wall Street bad boy Carl Icahn who wants it sold off to a more aggressive owner.
The question is: Why is it that we haven’t had more bad-ass execs that create billion dollar companies from the ground up or by acquisition? In the survival of the fittest, why are Oregon companies the acquired rather than the acquiring? Why did U.S. Bank get acquired by a bank in Minnesota rather than acquiring banks across the country and making Portland a banking capital? Charlotte, North Carolina was not a national financial center 50 years ago. It is today.
While this may seem to be just so much corporate drama for the movies, the result is that we have only a handful of large corporate headquarters in Oregon. The lack of these offices is one reason why we are a poorer state reflected by our lower than average per capita income. Those corporations increase the tax base and provide charitable donations and foundation grants for the community.
Now the Oregon business lobby wants Salem to make a lot of policy changes that they say will help the business community grow and provide more jobs. Maybe, just maybe, Oregon’s lack of large corporate HQ’s has nothing to do with government policy, but everything to do with the fact that people in Oregon, including our business leaders are just too damn nice.
And frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.