The mood at last night’s dinner gathering to honor Ford Motor Company’s CEO, Alan Mulally was, if not festive, at least enthusiastic. And why not? Some 200 CEOs took a break from their daily battle for growth in today’s tough economy to honor a peer who brought an American icon back from the brink of bankruptcy. Hugh Grant, CEO of Monsanto and outgoing CEO of the Year, echoed the thoughts of many in the crowd when he praised Alan Mulally for “using adversity in tough times as a springboard for innovation” and “leading a turnaround that resonated with the business community.”
NYSE Euronext CEO Duncan Niederauer also called out Mulally’s pursuit of innovation in the face of both a precarious financial situation internally and global economic uncertainty—conditions that might well have sent others running for the hills. Ford could have acted like a car company and simply introduced a new car, he said, “but Alan said, ‘We’re more than a car company, we’re a technology company.’”
But even as CEOs celebrated Mulally for taking risks in adversarial times, informal table discussions at the event revealed a sense of frustration among CEOs—frustration with the lingering uncertainty in the global economy, frustration with the government and even frustration with business. One CEO reported that while his customers are experiencing steady sales levels they are reluctant to invest in their businesses—and went on to note that this pervasive lack of faith has a powerful trickle down effect. Behind it, he posited, is the steady drumbeat of pessimism—or at least caution—streaming from daily newspaper stories and TV reports on the state of the economy and the political battles. “This is the first recession where we’ve seen this sort of ubiquitous coverage, and it’s taking a toll,” he said.
Another noted the impact of that same negativity on the market overall and his company’s stock in particular—expressing frustration that hype around recent political uncertainty is trumping understanding of his business’s prospects—which he believes are relatively recession proof.
Even Alan Mulally, after sharing some of the highlights of his tenure, had a frustration to convey to his peer CEOs. “We are fighting for the soul of manufacturing in the U.S.,” he said, noting that while manufacturing has long been the base of America’s investment on innovation. “Seventy percent of R&D in the U.S. is associated with manufacturing.”
Of course, none of these issues are entirely new. And perception has always shaped reality to some extent—in good times and in bad. But the atmosphere at last night’s event suggests that a momentum is building among business leaders—a momentum that will lead to action.
“There has been a lot of sitting back and waiting to see and a lot of fragmentation,” summed up one CEO. “Business needs to get together and speak with one voice.”
Look for more coverage of the 2011 CEO of the Year event in the September/October issue of Chief Executive magazine.