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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Leo Hindery, Jr.

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-02-15

Leo Hindery Jr. understands the ethos of his fellow CEO's as well as anyone else, and these days there's outrage in his argot.

"Look at the bad behavior in corporate America," the founder of InterMedia Partners said yesterday. "A lot of today's crop of CEO's are irresponsible or criminal - or both. But there are many more of them who're just hunkering down and hoping that their own shenanigans won't turn into tomorrow's headlines. I just don't like this misbehavior."

His outrage has been organized into a new book, "It Takes a CEO: It's Time to Lead with Integrity" (Free Press), his second dealing with the vicissitudes and victories of business. This one has fairly caused not a few of Mr. Hindery's vast cohort of friends to gulp on account of his blunt language.

He isn't fazed.

"This needs to be said - a bad CEO has a geometric and exponential impact not only in business and industry, but also in the community," Mr. Hindery said. "I don't want to indict America's entire corporate system just because of the misbehavior of a few executives. But it isn't just a few.

"For every CEO who crosses the line, I can find multiple numbers of CEO's who lost sight of their responsibility to their community. Such misbehavior at the top of the system is truly remarkable."

If there's a trace of moral umbrage in him, that's understandable. Mr. Hindery is a product of the Jesuit schooling system - a star student at Seattle University where he learned scholastic discipline and acquired an unbending value system that underscored morality at every stage of life.

"I came to believe in the importance of fairness, equality and diversity," Mr. Hindery said, with an earnestness that suggested underlying disappointment over not encountering likeminded believers too frequently.

This is not to say that he comes across as a scold. Mr. Hindery is ceaselessly congenial. He has encouraging words for the restaurant staff. He cracks a mild joke or two. He waves at some fellow diners. He relishes his repast, even ordering a formidable dessert with a self deprecating reference to his chubbiness.

But make no mistake. Mr. Hindery is suffused with rectitude. And yet he says that he believes in redemption and forgiveness.

Quite possibly, that flows from his tough childhood near Tacoma, Washington, as the son of a shoe salesman, Leo, and his wife Marie. He's not very comfortable discussing the travails of his early days, other than to say that he sprang from poor circumstances.

"I was doing manual labor at 9," Mr. Hindery said. "From the age of 13, I worked at least 40 hours a week. All my life, I've been financially independent as a result of work."

That work took him into shipyards in the Pacific Northwest. It took him into the Merchant Marine. It took him through those gritty warrens where boys became men pretty fast.

His income from such jobs enabled Mr. Hindery to put himself through Stanford Business School.

"I was always aspiring for the middle class," Mr. Hindery said.

He exceeded his aspirations.

Among his career highlights was GlobalCenter Inc., a major Internet services company, where Mr. Hindery became chairman and CEO. He was also president and CEO of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), and head of AT&T Broadband. In 2001, he helped form the YES Network, the television home of the New York Yankees and the New Jersey Nets. He won five Emmys as an executive producer.

Mr. Hindery now runs InterMedia Partners, which is an equity investor in media companies. He is currently an executive-in-residence at Columbia Business School, and a member of the board of advisors of the Columbia School of Journalism.

He's takes an unusually straightforward view of his success.

"The reason many of us got to where we are today is that somebody was nice to us," Mr. Hindery said. "I don't think I earned the title of CEO. It was someone's gift to me. Life is a series of lucky breaks - and hard work. And that's why it's even more incumbent on me to behave with responsibility and fairness as a CEO."

When he talks about CEO behavior, Mr. Hindery cites a startling statistic.

"Do you know that in Britain, the average CEO gets 22 times the salary of the average worker?" he said. "Do you know the figure for America?"
Mr. Hindery paused, clearly for effect.

"The average CEO in America gets 475 times the salary of the average corporate employee," he said.

He paused again.

"I'm not saying that CEO's don't deserve to be paid a lot of money - especially if their performance warrants it," Mr. Hindery said. "But come on, 475 times more than their workers? Are CEO's really 475 times more valuable than their workers? There's so much compensation and power at the very top of corporate America that this isn't a meritocracy anymore."

Another pause.

"It's time to say, 'No more,'" Mr. Hindery said.

His outrage notwithstanding, does he see a see change occurring in corporate America?

"The system isn't self-policing, it isn't self-reforming," Mr. Hindery said.

Is he concerned that his perorations could tag him as a Jeremiah in the corporate wilderness?

"You don't have to agree with me, but you'd better listen to me," Mr. Hindery said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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