Instead of building on family owned companies and an entrepreneurial spirit, America's economy today leans heavily on absentee owners and money managers who strip a corporation's competitive edge for the sake of quick profits, say three researchers from Brigham Young University's department of organizational behavior.
In their new book, "Managing by the Numbers: Absentee Ownership and the Decline of American Industry," published by Addison-Wesley, researchers Warner Woodworth, Christopher Meek and Gibb Dyer Jr. suggest that American business has undergone profound historical shifts in management orientation and ownership structure.All three authors have extensive consulting and research experience with Fortune 500 firms, in addition to work with entrepreneurs and family businesses.
In recent years, they say, the shift in ownership and control has played a key role in precipitating America's fall from world economic predominance.
"In the past few decades, family-owned, entrepreneurial companies rooted in a particular community and with a clear strategic focus have become multidivisional, publicly owned conglomerates controlled by corporate owners," Meek said.
"Interests have shifted from organization building to speculation, and businesses are managed by a new breed of generic, professional managers without roots or expertise in any specific business."
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader says the authors have "hit the nerve" of corporate management.
The expansion of United Airlines into UAL and then into Allegis is a textbook example of a case where remote control has led to a palace revolt, Meek said.
The company's new managers attempted to change United from an airline business to a conglomerate with hotels, rental cars and other businesses that siphoned off people, money and attention and led to the company's decline, he said.
As a result, Woodworth said, after years of wandering aimlessly with declining profits and loss of market share, employees forced out the president of Allegis and now are pushing the company to get back to basics.
"We see absentee owners and professional managers zeroing in on one objective improving return on equity and, hence, the stock price," Dyer said. "This has stymied the research and development efforts of U.S. corporations and provides little funding for training and developing human resources."
The authors argue that the more remote a company's owners become, the more a firm focuses its energies upon buying into new technologies and markets instead of developing them.
"This logic is: why go through the effort of developing new products, markets and technologies if you can go out and buy them?" Dyer said. "This has led to `merger mania' and the `takeover game.' "
Once a firm becomes heavily dependent on debt, the whole enterprise begins to unravel, Woodworth said.
"In order to feed the debt monster and provide funds for future acquisitions, management ranks are restructured and not always for the better," he said. "Employees are forced to take wage and benefit cuts, and pension funds are often raided and then terminated. Plants and other operations are closed and liquidated, destroying thousands of jobs, jobs that are given up to foreign production facilities."
Woodworth cited the nation's steel giant USX as an excellent case study of the devastating effect absentee ownership can have on an industry and the community in which it is located.