Milton Friedman was Wrong
How an Ancient Contract Leaves a Better Legacy
As an old Thunderbird expatriate, it is heart crushing for me to see the rural and urban poverty of a developing country; the devastation of a cyclone in the South Pacific; and the wreckage and loss of life that my own hometown of Christchurch, NZ, has suffered for seven years. The 7.1 magnitude earthquake on 4 September 2010 triggered shockwaves that continue to this day (see photo at right). Such experiences, of course, are not always necessary to force us to our senses as citizens of the world. Most Thunderbirds acknowledge that each of us carries great responsibility to look after each other and the societies where we live and work. We are trained to be highly insightful and more sensitive to the world and its needs. And our global preparation provokes inherently broader and deeper demands to lend ourselves to compassionate community service. Unfortunately, quarterly shareholder demands can distract us from that calling.
Very early in my overseas career, I was fortunate to work in a multi-national corporate culture where service to the community was deeply engrained as a core belief. Daily I witnessed and absorbed values that were barely mentioned in my graduate management studies: that a business is more than its bottom line, and that profit is broader than shareholder value maximization theory. Rather, I learned from an old legacy of social consciousness that there are far deeper social values and intangible outcomes of supporting the communities no matter where we work in the world.
In my field of agriculture and veterinary sciences, we abide by a strong ethical calling termed “The Ancient Contract.” This pact instructs us ‘to take care of our land and our animals, and in return, they take care of us.’ In my view, that “The Ancient Contract” is a critical social contract with general application to how all businesses interact in and with society. More than our client and vendor relationships, the Contract includes our environment, our employees, and our communities in general. It guides us as we seek to help improve the human condition.
A 90-minute drive from Christchurch, the Glenariffe Station, Canterbury, South Island, NZ is a famous 100 year old sheep station and former salmon hatchery in the Southern Alps. It is also an incredible example of sustainable family farming in New Zealand. The major salmon spawning stream in the foreground is protected by NZ Fish and Game and managed by the farm family. The sheep flock in the background is raised for lamb and wool production.
My personal exercising of “The Ancient Contract” finds its origins in philanthropy of the founder of my old Belgian employer, Solvay & Cie. Ernest Solvay was one of a kind in his era. From inventing the Solvay Process, one of the first industrial-scale chemical processes for making soda ash, he built a large multi-national enterprise in the late 1800s. He used his considerable expertise, financial resources and statesmanship to parlay his philanthropy to support the sciences (especially chemistry and physics), promote research, and invest in educational institutions. Having established that reputation, Solvay was appointed by the Belgian king to personally take charge of Belgium’s relief services to the famine-stricken Belgian community during World War I.
Ernest Solvay set the stage for developing a highly educated work force with spin-offs to the community in building a healthy economy and modern society. Years ago, the President of Solvay, along with the support of the Belgian Embassy, sponsored a new research fund at the veterinary college at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Another example was when Solvay’s president met with Thailand’s late King Bhumibol. Upon hearing the Thai king’s request for help studying and resolving Bangkok’s perennial flood problems, the president immediately offered the company’s considerable engineering know-how. Together, the experts developed a series of pumping stations to keep the city from being inundated. Today, the Solvay family and the company still support numerous education, research and community service initiatives in many parts of the world where they have facilities. A current example of their philanthropy in research is providing majority support for the first around-the-world flight of the Solar Impulse, an aircraft entirely powered by solar energy. I myself became a confirmed advocate of community service and volunteerism after witnessing these values in action while establishing a new Solvay joint veterinary venture in Thailand.
When I later struck out on my own, I took great heart from those lessons of Ernest Solvay’s legacies. Building my animal health and veterinary diagnostic laboratory in New Zealand and the South Pacific, my mission was to ensure that my colleagues and I adopted our own Ancient Contract. I grew my business applying a value set based on compassion and giving back to the communities we serve. You won’t see the Contract in our corporate literature. Instead, we just get on quietly with supporting community service and volunteerism in a range of ways around the South Pacific. We support the City Mission in our hometown for the Food Bank and Night Shelter. We donate to the Cancer Society in Fiji. We have raised funds to rebuild a maternity ward destroyed by a cyclone in the South Pacific. And you’ll find us regularly contributing our veterinary and immunology skills - and critical vaccines – pro bonoto our Department of Conservation wildlife clinic. The clinic helps protect New Zealand’s highly-endangered avian species including kiwis, takahē and kākāpō.
LEFT: The Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary, Suva, Fiji and myself at the convent in Suva, Fiji following my visit to a nearby maternity hospital that had been destroyed in 2016 by Cyclone Winston. The sisters' dedication to supporting the rural and urban poor in Fiji was deeply inspiring as to their humility and selfless compassion. RIGHT: As a trustee of Wildbase Hospital, Massey University, Palmerston North, NZ, the country's veterinary college, I helped raise funds to build a new purpose-built clinic for injured and sick wildlife that are transported to the hospital from all over New Zealand.
The Ancient Contract is now part of my own legacy. My personal reward for this comes from the giving, and learning to do so with humility and compassion. I grow as I express my care for society and our environment. In terms of benefits to an enterprise, the values of social consciousness are reflected in how our company and staff serve our business clients. Our greater empathy means we provide added value in better understanding their needs and offering the kind of support they expect. Profit still matters of course; but as a measure that tells us how well we’re contributing value to the world; not as the only worthwhile outcome.
I invite all Thunderbirds to consider the modern implications of this ancient wisdom. In the end, it’s all about “what goes around; comes around.”
Kent Deitemeyer, '76
Christchurch, New Zealand
Special thanks to TIAA Member and volunteer Alicia Engel, EMGM '16, for her assistance editing this piece.