I recently attended a luncheon with some 85 Minnesotans in Naples, Fla. — a remarkable function focused on the exceptional work of the Minnesota Historical Society.

As I reviewed this outstanding Minnesota institution’s materials, acknowledging a long list of wealthy contributors and Minnesota foundations, I was especially proud to have strong Minnesota roots.

There are more large foundations in Minnesota developed by successful business people than perhaps anywhere else in the U.S.

Why have so many large and small businesses prospered in Minnesota? It can be well-documented that the Minnesota business entrepreneurs who founded and operated successful firms possessed a set of key core values.

Yet times and circumstances have changed. Too many business leaders in more recent decades have used their clout on developing what’s referred to as crony capitalism to enhance their companies’ interests, which may conflict with their communities’. Today, for various reasons, more stay out of the community betterment fray, where they once led.

Corporations have become much larger and are not as connected to communities. Many large businesses are just branches, with key decisions being made by top officials far away. Recently I thought of meeting with the CEO of Walgreens at its headquarters in the Chicago area (I used to know Gerry Walgreen). But I found he lives in Monaco, and so has few reasons to address Chicago’s crisis.

Businesses schools are educating graduates with more secular and self-focused values, and they perform well as company managers, but not as old time caring community leaders.

Even media institutions in major cities, whose owners used to live in their communities, now too frequently are controlled by absentee owners with different orientations.

In my long career, I had the privilege to work with the most senior business leaders in major cities. When community problems surfaced, the business leaders assembled. For example, I would be asked by Bruce Dayton to bring top business leaders to the Minneapolis Club. I attended similar meetings in St. Paul led by Phil Nason, chairman of First National Bank. The community issue would be discussed, solutions outlined and funding pledged.

To be a part of these business elites, you fell in line with the driving leader — it worked!

Similar leadership practices were followed in other major cities. In Chicago, business leaders asked me to organize a meeting with the late Mayor Richard Daley, the strong man of Chicago. They confronted Daley with the message that they were prepared to move their firms out of the city and stop hiring any Chicago Public School grads unless major changes were made.

This kind of leadership moved the mayor to launch major reforms in which business leaders agreed to lead. This included appointing a business-led school board, financial reform, minority economic development, police reform, job creation, a new economic development agency, etc. A troubled city was turned around, for a period of time. However, these leaders didn’t stay on the case and later regression set in, as is witnessed today.

In Kansas City, I was charged by business leaders (with Chuck Battey, president of Sprint, in the lead) to arrange an effective public-private partnership that turned around and improved conditions in Kansas City and St. Louis, including pushing a needed but controversial state tax increase.

Many other examples could be cited.

In Minneapolis, when City Hall was confronted with poor leadership and signs of corruption, business leaders funded and elected five new council members from both political parties (I was one of them). The business leaders also recruited and elected highly qualified school board members. They helped organize a new Metropolitan Council and appointed two of the top CEOs to serve on the board.

Today, this “old time” leadership is mostly absent. In too many cities, we witness a crisis. Our economic system of capitalism is under attack. As noted in a recent Harvard University analysis, today’s millennials are hostile to capitalism in large numbers.

This should be a loud wake-up call to today’s business leaders to develop new ways to showcase capitalism in a more positive light. Yet too few are standing up today. Old advice is most relevant.

Bruce and Ken Dayton, who founded Target (and to whom I reported), said:

“We believe the great work for American businesses and our private foundations is to ensure our cities regenerate themselves as dynamic centers, socially, economically and culturally. Profit is our reward for serving well with integrity.”

The Twin Cities are fortunate to have two organizations today keeping this message front and center: The St. Thomas Center for Ethical Business Cultures and the Caux Round Table, making the case for moral capitalism.

This is a self-interested time for business leaders to stand up again. Much is at stake.

 

Robert MacGregor is co-chair of the Global Governing Board of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.