The contributions of Mr. William McGowan


In the turbulent atmosphere of the first years of the 21st century, the corporate scandals of such industry giants like Tyco, Enron, and WorldCom precipitated a proverbial earthquake that shook the business world to its very core. The names of individual leaders associated with such indignities - Dennis Kozlowski, Kenneth Lay, and Scott Sullivan - became notorious. The perspicuous irresponsibility and negligent acts perpetrated by the CEOs that impacted their stakeholders adversely caused a massive surge of pessimism that accompanied the United States' economic downturn. In a period marked by such misfortune, it is convenient to blame other parties or the system rather than recognize responsibility or strive to act with more ethical motivations. Instead of focusing on individuals that exploit loopholes in the system or subvert social accountability for personal gain, one should look into the past to recognize heroes of the democratic-capitalist institution who encompass the qualities that inspire hope and determination in the youth and impart their virtues to the next generation of business and social leaders. One need not look further that the illustrious career of William McGowan, a founder of MCI and a person who has left an indelible impression on American society even years after his death.

A man from humble beginnings and an admirable work ethic, William McGowan always had the "big picture" imprinted in his mind when he started an endeavor. He set reasonable goals and achieved them, such as winning the Baker scholarship at Harvard to complete his studies. In retrospect, he always seemed to fulfill the role of the "underdog" and that naturally would explain his appeal to fellow Americans and gain him heroic status. Yet Mr. McGowan was different than his peers because he never seemed satisfied to "sit back on the laurels" of his accomplishments; he was always looking to the future and obviously felt compelled to continue to serve society in a vital capacity. Like a philosopher's need for answers beyond the explanations offered by the material world, William McGowan was unsatisfied with accepting the status quo in the telecommunications industry as it was during the 1960's and looked for an answer - one that he received when he decided to start MCI in 1968.

The timeless story of David and Goliath comes to mind as analogous to William McGowan's ongoing struggle against AT&T and the regulatory and legal battles that they fought. The impact of the foundation of MCI and his subsequent victories in gaining access to AT&T's lines of communication are numerous and some are not so obvious. He approached this venture with the tenacity of a crusader of the Middle Ages determined to take back the Holy Land for the Christians - uncompromising; he was taking back America's telephone wires so others could compete and Americans could be satisfied with service and lower rates. Truly, he is a modern day crusader infused with a divine determination and inspiration. The corporate behemoth, AT&T, the Microsoft of the 1960's, was a lumbering monopolistic giant. Without competition, innovation does not prosper, and as an advocate of innovation, McGowan understood the inherent danger of the telephone company's situation. If a sole company controls all the telephone wires, realistically it will not develop new technologies at a fast rate if it has the ability to control prices and rates, and thus revenue, at will. Performance can and will stagnate in a monopoly and inevitably the capacity to communicate effectively and efficiently will erode.

As the rest of America's important economic sectors flourished and increased in prosperity during the decade of the 60's, the telephone industry would not have but for the actions of Mr. McGowan. Without sufficient communication avenues accessible to all at reasonably low prices, businesses and individuals could suffer. Communication is vital to all interactions whether commercial in nature or not. It was irresponsible to place control of the vital infrastructure of communication for Americans in the hands of a single entity. This went against all that the capitalist system of the United States represented and for this reason Mr. McGowan performed a great service for the country. Moreover, in present times company CEOs or other leaders have become symbolic figureheads who explicitly represent the company. The character of the company is thus associated with the person who runs it. It is important to associate a human face or the strong virtuous character of the leader with the company because it seems less mechanistic and impersonal, and thus, it remains imperative to identify MCI with William McGowan rather than simply an impersonal company that is fighting against another equally faceless company.

The existence of "baby Bells" such as MCI encouraged others to enter the industry and it showed that big companies are not unassailable by smaller competitors. It jump-started the telecommunications industry at a the right time and without this milestone, the United States and the world might not have developed such things as wireless communication technology to the extent it has, nor would it have virtually eliminated all the barriers to effective information processing and transmission. Mr. McGowan must have realized that as corporations got larger and the services industry augmented, information processing would begin to supersede the traditional industrial giants and other similar producers. In this day in age, there are more people in offices that transmit information in "real-time" and unconsciously rely on extensive telephone networks that have evolved from intense competition. Phone advertisements are prevalent on television and the consumer and businessperson alike have a plethora of options to consider now. The industry may be one of the most active and fiercely competitive as information-related businesses become more vital to modern society.

Notwithstanding his achievements in the telecommunications field, William McGowan appeared as a contemporary Renaissance man that imbued his indomitable spirit in everything he touched. He was truly an archetype of the businessman molded by social responsibility, reform, progress, and a proactive mentality. Mr. McGowan was like a breath of fresh air that invigorated any industry in which he became involved. In that way, he transcended the traditional role of the businessman that was typically viewed as an advocate of financial reports and profits - the bottom line - with little involvement in anything outside his small sphere of influence. Yet the founder of MCI, after being stricken with severe heart problems by 1986, sought to aid the institutions responsible for the health and intellectual development of Americans and create enduring funds to support innovation in medicine and education that would improve other people's lives. His sense of social responsibility was astounding. He gave back to the communities and remained attached and aware of his roots, allowing him to understand the predicaments of financially burdened youths and rewarding them for their outstanding achievements and passions.

Perhaps the CEOs of today should look back on their predecessors like Bill McGowan for an excellent example on how to lead responsibly without sacrificing values. The general impression one gets after reading about his life is that Mr. McGowan is an approachable, sincere man that remembers and takes pride in his humble beginnings. He seemed like the kind of man that would make time to talk to a young person who needed some advice about his or her future. Mr. McGowan could tell an interesting personal anecdote and how he accomplished something, inspiring the listener, but then he would insist that his listener go out and achieve something similar because if he could do it, then that person could as well. He did not compromise his values for personal gain and remained connected to anything that impacted his life. Mr. McGowan did not sacrifice quality for efficiency or to appease others. Such respect for his strength of character can inspire young people whose usual idealism is thrown down mercilessly by some of the harsh realities of the real world.

Quite possibly the most important contribution of this man is that he inspired trust and faith in a company whose future was unsure, and after all, the democratic capitalist system as a whole only functions because its members have faith in it and support it. The lesson taught here is twofold - CEOs of the 21st century should act with greater social responsibility to prevent future Enrons from occurring, while the youth of the nation should abandon cynicism resulting from the faults of many corporations and renew their hope in the future of the United States and its way of life because heroes of history like William McGowan existed, who refused to compromise their beliefs and truly made an indelible mark for the "good" on society. The McGowan Fund is performing a great service by communicating his achievements to students because it is essential that young people find inspiration or a role-model in the business world in a time when the news media highlights the bad ones more than the good ones.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on May 17, 2004