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Top 50: Defining success

From Ben Franklin to FreeMarkets' Glen Meakem, it's hard work, discipline, a strong sense of self and an understanding of what really matters

Tuesday, April 09, 2002

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The day Internet auctioneer FreeMarkets Inc. began trading its stock, making Glen Meakem a paper billionaire, someone asked the young executive if he ever imagined his company would be this successful.

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette illustration

How to succeed in business (by trying hard)

"I always knew it would happen this way," he said.

More than two years later, Meakem, 38, admits to being "very ambitious" and wanting "to be as successful or more successful than the most successful people of my generation, in terms of achievements in my career . . . and also in terms of making money." Yet, now that Meakem has that at FreeMarkets, his definition of success has become more complex.

"You won't find many people who are more ambitious in a career sense and money sense than me," he said. But, "if I am a crummy husband and a crummy father, I am not a success." He still values personal achievement and wealth, but success is "also about having a positive impact on others."

Most people in business define success as Meakem does, in a personal way, putting their families, charities, employees or spiritual happiness above money, status and rank. But there is an inherent conflict there. People do not want to define themselves in materialist ways, but the larger culture often defines business success differently, concentrating more on profits, money, status and rank.

"I would be lying to you if I were to tell you I would consider myself successful or my business successful if it didn't allow me to live a lifestyle I am content with," said attorney Steve Reinsel, a co-founder of Downtown law firm Santoro & Reinsel.

The pursuit of success thus reflects a paradox of American life, and points to a series of inherent conflicts that have altered the definition of success numerous times in the last two centuries while at the same time spawning endless advice on how to achieve it.

Pittsburgh executives reached by the Post-Gazette now define success as a mixture of survival, failure, innovation, change, performance and respect. To Sunil Wadhwani, founder of iGate, success is "creating something from nothing and really building a significant organization where nothing existed before." To Medrad Inc. Chief Executive Officer John Friel, success is his own happiness, the well-being of his employees and the health of his company. To Internet entrepreneur Marco Cardamone, it is "learning from failure."

But rarely is it money.

"I don't like the idea of doing things for money," said UPMC Chairman Jeff Romoff. Or, as Pittsburgh attorney Marlee Myers put it, "Money is the byproduct of success; it is not the definition of success."

Building character

The pursuit of success, and its inherent conflicts, began with Benjamin Franklin, a self-promoter, entrepreneur and 18th century statesman who remains the archetypal self-made man. He started life poor, worked hard, made money and achieved an international status that allowed him to dine with kings.

Audio: Defining "Success"

PG Business Writer Dan Fitzpatrick discusses the historic criteria for business success in Pittsburgh (1.05MB).

Fitzpatrick describes how the criteria for success has evolved locally. (1.1MB)

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Drawing on puritanical and Calvinist beliefs that success was a sign of God's favor, Franklin developed the view that the pursuit of wealth was virtuous and would lead to success. It was part of "the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection," he said.

Franklin was the first to make money by telling others how to make money, too. In 1757, he published "The Way To Wealth," a how-to guide for accumulating wealth. Later, in his "Autobiography," Franklin described how other young people could "emerge from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world."

To Franklin, the two most important virtues employed in the pursuit of wealth were industry and frugality.

"The way to wealth," he wrote in "Advice to Young Statesmen," "if you desire it, is as plain as the way to market. It depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality; that is, waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both." From this philosophy came classic Franklin aphorisms such as "early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." Also, it produced, "A fat kitchen makes a lean will. Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt."

Among other virtues crucial for success, Franklin also listed temperance, silence, order, resolution, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity and humility.

Idleness, he said, was a seductive trap. "Laziness travels so slowly, that poverty soon overtakes him."

Franklin tried to hold himself to these same requirements by keeping a daily chart of self-examination. He focused on one virtue per week, and failed himself on the days he did not live up to his own advice.

Franklin, unlike the early Puritans, removed religion from the pursuit of success, preferring to view it as a secular quest and within the power of each individual alone. Also, "he ignored the importance of luck, contacts, family influence and native intelligence," wrote Richard Huber, author of the book "The American Idea of Success." "The start was equal for all."

Such an attitude played well in a country that valued rugged individualism. Back then, material success equaled true success, because it required honesty, integrity, hard work and determination to achieve it. Self interest was OK, as long as it was "enlightened self-interest."

Reinforcing this view, in the late 19th century, were the fictional tales of Horatio Alger. Building on the work in magazines such as "Wealth and Worth," and such stories as "Where There's a Will, There's a Way," which appeared in the 1850s, Alger turned the pursuit of success into a heroic struggle that was symbolic of equal opportunity and the long climb from "rags to riches."

An ordained minister-turned-writer, Alger churned out about 100 novels in the late 1800s, all of them touching on the theme of success. For the most part, Alger's heroes were young, male and poor, but always seeking "respectability" in the white collar world.

Alger's first hit was "Ragged Dick," a book published in 1868. The protagonist, an orphan, struggles without any reward until he saves a wealthy man's drowning child. The father, grateful for the effort, hires the hero to work in a counting house and offers him a new suit of clothes.

"Dick's great ambition to 'grow up 'spectable," Alger wrote, "seemed likely to be accomplished."

Most of Alger's stories followed the same plot line: plucky, self-reliant youngsters rewarded with the kindness of a stranger, usually in the form of money or a job. Also, the hero always seized the opportunity when it arrived.

No one businessman of the late 19th century reflected the Alger ethos better than Pittsburgh steelmaker Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie epitomized American-style success, believing like Franklin that the virtuous struggle for wealth would improve his character -- and fatten his pocketbook.

Carnegie glorified the accumulation of wealth by telling his own story in books, articles, speeches and essays. Born poor in Scotland, Carnegie arrived in the United States at the age of 13, and rose from the messenger boy in a Pittsburgh telegraph office to become the richest man in the world at the turn of the century, when he sold Carnegie Steel for $480 million.

Carnegie's story also echoes Alger's "Ragged Dick."

In his book, "Empire of Business," Carnegie argued that "honest poverty" is the "soil" on which "alone the virtues and all that is precious in human character grow." His memory of the "wolf of poverty" spurred him to ceaseless amounts of work for his employers. In a June 23, 1885, address Carnegie gave to a group of graduating students at Pittsburgh's Curry Commercial College, Carnegie stressed these themes.

"The rising man," he said, "must do something exceptional, and beyond the range of his special department.

"He must attract attention.

"There is no service so low and simple, neither any so high, in which the young man of ability and willing disposition cannot readily and almost daily prove himself capable of greater trust and usefulness, and, what is equally important, show his invincible determination to rise."

Carnegie provided ample justification for the pursuit of success and the making of money, echoing themes established by Franklin more than century earlier. But he also put a new spin on the subject. In a 1889 essay entitled Wealth, he argued that some people acquire wealth due to superior talents, but that such an accumulation benefited the larger human race.

"It becomes the duty of the millionaire to increase his revenues," he wrote. "The struggle for more is completely freed from selfish or ambitious taint and becomes a noble pursuit. Then he labors not for self, but for others', not to hoard, but to spend, The more he makes, the more the public gets."

Carnegie, true to his word, gave away much of his fortune. As he concluded, "the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced."

Modern-day virtue

Most executives now attribute success to a mixture of hard work, good fortune and persistence, drawing on the same themes established by Franklin and Alger.

Consider the life of Marlee Myers, managing partner of Morgan Lewis & Bockius' Pittsburgh office and perhaps Pittsburgh's best-known technology attorney. Her grandparents were immigrants from Russia, and her parents lacked formal education. Her father, who never finished high school, ran a small Lee Jeans store in Downtown McKeesport, but lost the store to a redevelopment of McKeesport's business district.

In the conventional sense, Myers said, her parents were not successful. But her own poor background made Myers "independent minded" and eager for achievement. She won a full scholarship to attend Carnegie Mellon University, dropped out at 19 to get married, then paid her own way to attend the University of Pittsburgh.

She eventually went to law school, where she graduated No. 1 in her class. She got a job at the Downtown law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, started representing technology clients, and formed Morgan Lewis' Pittsburgh office in 1996. She has represented many of Pittsburgh's best known technology companies, including FreeMarkets and Fore Systems, which was purchased by Marconi plc in the late 1990s.

"I have moved up the ladder in American society by dint of education, hard work and pluck," she said. "It is a very typical American story ... My parents had essentially nothing. I was able to achieve my dreams and goals through working hard and trying hard at what I do."

Former Allegheny Technologies Chairman Dick Simmons, who resigned three years ago as one of the nation's most respected steelmakers, did not have much money as a child, either.

His father, who owned a gas station in Bridgeport, Conn., died while Simmons was still a teen-ager. Simmons, though, got a scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He graduated with a debt equal to $35,000 in today's dollars. It took him four years to pay it off, while working for Allegheny Ludlum, the company he would eventually run a few decades later.

Simmons, now 70, spent five decades in the specialty metals business, the highlight of which was a $195 million management buyout of Ludlum in 1980. Simmons also launched, with his own money, a venture capital firm that was one of the first to fund small, local technology companies.

His story, he said, is not "rags to riches," but it does show how "you start out by having to be very lucky, by working hard and by taking risks.

"I consider myself to be the luckiest man in the world," he said.

Tom Murrin, a former high-ranking executive with Westinghouse Electric Corp., and a former dean of Duquesne University's A.J. Palumbo School of Business Administration, had a similar experience. Both his parents were poor, and never got beyond high school. His father, who dug tunnels and caught rivets atop skyscrapers in New York City, died while Murrin was still in high school.

But Murrin was a good enough student and a good enough athlete to win a football scholarship to Fordham University. Walking to school an hour each way, every day, Murrin majored in physics because it was the "hardest subject" he could find and he played football, too, as a fullback.

His coach was the then-unknown Vince Lombardi, who would later coach Green Bay Packers.

Lombardi, Murrin said, taught him several important lessons about success.

"One was you could do things much better than you could ever naturally want to or dream if you worked hard enough at it. He taught us how to work harder than we ever wanted to or felt we ever could."

After Fordham, Murrin joined Westinghouse in 1951. Before rising in the executive ranks, he started on the factory floor, and became engineer, supervising engineer, manufacturing representative in Europe, as well as the company's youngest manufacturing manager and youngest general manager.

"I was the youngest everything," he said.

Thinking back, he said, "A lot of life is fate or luck." Like the boys in the Horatio Alger story, "I have been very fortunate that way."

Unlike Murrin, Allegheny County Executive Chief Executive Jim Roddey began life in a "comfortable" middle class household, but he did not need a lower-class background to inspire thoughts of success. He remembers being successful early in life, first as a high school track star and then after he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

"I think I enjoyed being successful," he said. "You have a little taste of going to school and doing well and being recognized at the top of your class and being in sports and being on the starting team. You begin to form patterns, recognizing that it is better to win than it is to lose."

As a businessman, Roddey experienced both success and failure. He worked for a man, CNN network founder Ted Turner , who "used to say that 'business was a game and money was how you kept score,' " Roddey said. "His definition of success was being king of the hill." Roddey said he has some of that attitude in him, but that money was never "the most important thing" for him.

"All of my life I have set goals," he said. "To be success, first you have to set goals. If you reach those goals, then you have a clear definition of success."

Like Roddey, FreeMarkets CEO Glen Meakem felt like a success early in life. In sixth grade, he remembers doing well in school, sports and the theater. "I haven't stopped feeling like a success since the sixth grade," he said. His first job in the business world was with Kraft General Foods. He felt successful right away, with raises and good performance reviews. But, "I saw myself as a CEO," he said. "I thought my odds of being a CEO were small following that career path."

So, he left.

"The really, really great business people were those who started their own company. Being the guy who worked your way up for 30 years and having four years as the CEO was sort of nice and you made a decent income, but people forgot your name in five years." The people who started companies "were people who changed business ... made a lot of money and made a great impact."

The decline of the dream and the new success

By the last third of the 19th century, the dominant concept of success was one of "opulent materialism competitively won," according to "Success in America," a book by Rex Burns. From the 1870s to the 1920s, a farm boy-turned-Baptist minister named Russell Conwell stressed this theme in more than 6,000 lectures known as "Acres of Diamonds," acting as an unapologetic promoter of materialism.

"I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich," he said. "Money is power, and you ought to be reasonably ambitious to have it. You ought because you can do more good with it than you could without it."

But some felt that rugged independence, even the "enlightened" self-interest promoted first by Franklin, was no longer moral but instead destructive. Muckrakers and progressives began to pick away at the image of the self-made industrialist. Many Pittsburgh executives were targets. One, of course, was Carnegie.

Another was Charles Schwab. After joining Carnegie Steel in 1879 as a day laborer, Schwab made a fast rise to the top, becoming president at age 35, head of the largest and most profitable steel company in the world. Schwab later went on to form Bethlehem Steel, making it a formidable competitor to U.S. Steel.

In "Succeeding with What You Have," a magazine article that appeared in American Magazine in November, 1916, Schwab made the point that it doesn't take big brains to succeed in business. "I have always felt that the surest way to qualify for the job just ahead is to work a little harder than anyone else on the job one is holding down." In another article titled "Ten Commandments of Success," Schwab said that "a man early in life must make up his mind to do one of two things: Either to have a good time in life; or to be successful in life.

"He can choose one, but not both."

But Schwab tasted the other side of success, too. He spent lavishly in his later years, and according to Time magazine, died nearly bankrupt in 1939, even though at one time he made $2 million a year as U.S. Steel's president.

By the late 1930s, according to Robert Hessen's "Steel Titan," Schwab felt that some of his achievements in business had been forgotten and unappreciated. He told journalist B.C. Forbes in 1936, "I really feel that I have contributed something to the development of this country's resources -- Bethlehem [Steel] gives employment to some 30,000 people. It hurts me -- it hurts me very much -- to be branded as nothing but a greedy, selfish, self-seeking, mercenary, merciless fellow, callous towards workmen and towards everybody else."

After World War II, the pursuit of success veered off the path worn by Schwab and Carnegie. Personal magnetism, instead of inner virtue, became a more important factor of success. In the 1925 best-selling book "The Man Nobody Knows," advertising executive Bruce Barton described how Jesus Christ, "founder of modern business," rose from poverty to become a great leader because he had "the personal magnetism which begets loyalty and commands respect."

The personality approach reached its zenith, perhaps, with Dale Carnegie's 1936 book "How To Win Friends and Influence People." Born poor, Carnegie became an accomplished college debater and later, a salesman. At night, he gave courses in public speaking to a YMCA, in New York. The course was a hit, and he began teaching more classes in the 1920s and 1930s, calling the lectures "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

He finally put the advice into print in 1936.

Carnegie, in his book, promised to give people self-confidence, which would lead to success and a larger income. Among his rules were "Smile; Remember that a man's name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in the English language; Be a good listener; Talk in terms of the other man's interests; and Make the other person feel important -- and do it sincerely."

Not afraid to fail

When asked what it takes to be a success, most Pittsburgh executives provided similar answers, drawing their influences from Franklin, Alger and the two Carnegies, Andrew and Dale. Most mentioned hard work, a positive attitude and self-confidence. Some mentioned integrity, some mentioned discipline and some mentioned intelligence.

Some mentioned luck.

For Internet entrepreneur Marco Cardamone, though, the secret is simple: Learn from your failures. "My success is the result of learning from a lot of failures," he said.

At age 24, Cardamone was living in New York and making more than $100,000 a year as a computer animator. "I had what you would call early success." But when he tried to create a new animation product and sell it to cable networks, "I failed miserably."

His failure put him on the verge of bankruptcy.

He left Manhattan for Pittsburgh thinking that "this isn't easy and you are not guaranteed anything. The last thing you want to do is take what appears to be success for granted." In Pittsburgh, though, Cardamone started an Internet company called Electronic Images, and in 1997, he sold it for $65 million. Friends and colleagues congratulated him at the time of the sale, asking him if he now felt truly successful.

"Everybody thinks I got a boatload of money," and therefore "must be successful," Cardamone said. But, "to believe that is very dangerous."

Success, he said, "is not about you, but about the problems you solve for other people."

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