A crosstown tip of the cap for a job well done

  • Article by: Neal St. Anthony
  • Star Tribune
  • July 17, 2006 - 11:37 PM

First the bad news: Dave Beal, an award-winning business columnist and solid competitor, has retired from the St. Paul Pioneer Press after 25 years as business editor (1981-88) and columnist, concluding a 45-year career in daily journalism.

The good news: Beal, 67, will continue with his insights at least a couple of times a month from retirement.

That fact underscores one of Beal's strengths: his understated-but-fervent enthusiasm for a broad range of topics. He has opined on issues ranging from the woefully short-term outlook of too many investors to the excessive executive compensation for CEOs and to the noble community investments by others. He's highlighted the well-grounded fears about this country's loss of its manufacturing base and our increased national indebtedness.

It's not always easy to make these topics accessible and understandable in 20 to 25 column inches several times a week, I can tell you. And you never forget the bad ones.

"Columnists like you and I have won the privilege of covering all of this, in one of the world's great regional business centers," Beal told me the other day. "We are very fortunate."

What did I say about enthusiasm?

"Dave is an inspirational guy because he thinks it's an honor to be a columnist," said Doug Iverson, the Pioneer Press' business editor. "He has always taken that and his responsibility to readers to heart.

"He's always reporting or here hacking away. He feels, as good columnists do -- especially writing for a business audience -- that they want to see a rational argument and not just an emotional tirade. And he is willing to present different viewpoints."

Hard work, diverse sources

Beal, who labored for small papers as well as the Wall Street Journal before arriving at the Pioneer Press as business editor and part-time columnist in 1981, was known for working as hard as anybody and for actually reading the stuff he jammed in his briefcase at the end of the day.

Mike Meyers, a Star Tribune colleague who once worked for Beal in Binghamton, N.Y, recalls that Beal was a stickler for tough questions, diverse sources and crisp writing.

"His face seems permanently etched with an aura of disquiet," Meyers recalls. "I suspected that helped Dave get people to keep talking. He never looks quite satisfied with any answer."

I caught up with Beal the other day by cell phone, as he was driving through the Rockies with his wife, Caroline, en route to visit a couple of their six grown children. It wasn't tough to get him going on a few of his favorite subjects:

"The rising annual turnover of stock ownership is one measure of increasing 'short-termism' in the stock market," Beal said. "We've come full circle from the days when the bank trust departments held huge chunks of stock -- 30 to 40 years ago -- and simply bought and held. That wasn't such a great situation, but the current practice -- where so many money managers are constantly trading and dressing up their portfolios to goose up their quarterly performances -- doesn't seem like an improvement."

The flip side of that is the propensity of some companies to constantly meet or beat Wall Street's quarterly expectations, for fear that even a near miss or two will cause those short-term investors to dump the stock. In one, memorable 2003 column, Beal pointed out, in a way that Warren Buffett might, that quality companies focus on the longer term and their stocks do just fine.

"I think it's interesting that in so many of the corporate scandals of recent years, a major element in the skulduggery has been cutting corners to goose up quarterly earnings," he wrote in one of the year's understatements.

A critic of CEO pay

Beal also has been a critic of skyrocketing executive compensation -- particularly when it results from so-so corporate performance or grows out of questionable accounting or other tawdry practices.

Yet he's an unabashed supporter of business and the prosperity it creates at good companies that share the wealth. And he ticks off a list of retired executives, including Win Wallin, Bob Kierlin, Bill George, Chuck Denny, Janet Dolan and others who also have been philanthropists and community servants after they made their fortunes.

"I think you and I agree that the supply of good and ethical business executives is unusually long in Minnesota," he said. "At the same time, though, it seems to me that a number of public companies here are locked into too-often dysfunctional CEO pay-and-performance-game systems. And I don't think a lot of CEOs in the Twin Cities necessarily buy into the good-guy stuff. Too many think that Enron and WorldCom are aberrations and let's get on with it."

Mourns manufacturing loss

A familiar Beal refrain is his fear that America is giving up its cornerstone -- the manufacturing sector -- and that we're piling on too much personal and national debt as we buy more foreign-made oil, vehicles, electronics and other stuff. Four years ago, Beal and retired University of St. Thomas professor Fred Zimmerman wrote "Manufacturing Works," a good book about those trends and concerns.

In a typical show of modesty, Beal took some pot shots at himself in his last regular column for not being more skeptical about the technology bubble of the late 1990s and a few local companies that eventually fizzled out.

But for every one that Beal may look back and wince at, I credit him with scores of bull's-eyes.

Just last month, the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists named Beal best of breed in 2005 for a column he wrote that reminded us of how all the debt the new owners of Northwest Airlines took on to buy the once-conservative company in 1989 sure didn't help when times got tough last fall and the company declared bankruptcy. Of course, those guys made millions selling their stock ahead of the bankruptcy.

With a grasp of history and how things really work, Beal can get beyond the day's headlines and the latest news release to hold managements and boards accountable -- without trashing the system.

"What's that old saying? 'Capitalism is full of warts, but it's still better than any other 'ism,' " Beal concluded.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •

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