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November 1, 2012

When businesses make us proud

“The absolute fundamental aim is to make money out of satisfying customers.” —Sir John Egan

It’s such a pleasure to find inspiration in unexpected places.

I had a meeting in Buffalo, New York, earlier in the year and was booked at the Asa Ransom House, a bed and breakfast that has been operating since 1853; surely one of this country’s most delightful inns. My plane was late and the kitchen was closed when I arrived. But the owner, Robert Lenz, assured me that I would not go hungry. A delicious sandwich, salad and homemade pastry materialized from the inn’s gleaming, magical kitchen.

Mr. Lenz showed me to a room richly furnished with antiques and period reproductions, though the bed, thankfully, was comfortably up-to-date. The next morning, breakfast was wonderful, and I ate in front of a broad bay window looking out at a lush and peaceful landscape, reflecting on this historic place where the owner cares and is so clearly proud of the accommodations and service he offers.

Sitting quietly in that bay window reminded me so powerfully of many other richly rewarding businesses and their owners that I have been privileged to encounter over the years. Certainly, they are there to make money, but their vision of a life’s work is so much fuller and firmly anchored in values that make this country a great place to live and work.

We hear a lot about core values from politicians these days. But, for the most part, their behavior betrays their words. It is obvious from the disgraceful dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and statehouses across the country that the men and women who are supposed to guide our policy and make our laws have abandoned certain values—those that bring people together and are at the heart of our best businesses, big and small.

One of the rewards of my job as CEO of MSCI is that I see these values everywhere I go in our members and the way they do business. It is reassuring that so many successful business owners build trust with their customers, deliver the highest value for the best price and maintain a generosity of spirit that makes them proud of what they do for a living.

It is no accident that you get superior service at an Apple store or a Starbucks. It is no accident that Southwest Airlines boasts some of the best service in its industry. When one of our service center members mentions that his employee retention rate is always high and that the business is expanding nicely, that is no accident either.

These are businesses that care about their customers, but just as much about their employees. They relentlessly instill an attitude of service and respect for the customer through- out the operation. Training at Apple and Starbucks is the stuff of business school legend. Southwest has never laid off an employee, and its work force responds with superior service. That service center owner who keeps his best workers year after year recruits and trains conscientiously to make sure that his employees have the skills, tools and attitude of service to do their best work.

Being a part of these kinds of enterprises makes us proud. It engenders trust, honesty and integrity, not suspicion, alienation and divisiveness. It has the potential to bring us together in common purpose, not drive us apart.

As we move into a new political season with so much at stake for us all, perhaps a little more reflection in Washington on these core values is in order. Service, care, honesty and integrity, the values that forge admirable businesses, would go a long way toward easing our fractious and destructive political climate.