Vision and Action: A Remembrance of Paul O’Neill
I first met Paul O’Neill 23 years ago. I was running a project at the Post-Gazette called PG Benchmarks, which compared Pittsburgh to regions across the country with the goal of elevating Pittsburgh’s moribund trajectory. Aside from publishing statistics and stories, we held periodic roundtable discussions, the first of which was on the economy. I invited Governor Tom Ridge and four top CEOs, including Paul.
The paper’s editor, the late John Craig, and I hosted the meeting, essentially asking: What are Pittsburgh’s key economic problems and how do we solve them? As the youngest by far, I focused on keeping the discussion on track, making sure my tape recorders functioned, and trying to keep pace with the titans. It was a room of big personalities (and egos), but the biggest presence was Paul. His insight, analysis and directness made the relatively diminutive Alcoa CEO dwarf the other, taller men.
His visit also marked the beginning of a productive friendship with John, though it didn’t start on a promising note. When Paul walked through the hodge-podge newsroom, he was appalled by the dangling wires and uneven flooring and threatened to call OSHA on John. They were a pair—two outspoken leaders who never fit easily into Pittsburgh society and didn’t care. They believed in frank discourse and societal improvement. A few years later, they teamed up to be the founding co-chairs of The Riverlife Task Force.
After that initial meeting, I was so impressed by Paul that I wrote him a letter—the only one like it I ever wrote—saying I admired him and would like to work with him if the occasion ever arose. Not long after, he left Pittsburgh to become U.S. Treasury Secretary. He had high hopes for that job, including possibly overhauling the massive, labyrinthine U.S. tax code. But he was disappointed, because he served under a President who had little interest in complex matters, never asking Paul a single question during two years of weekly face-to-face meetings on the economy.
“Maverick” was the term often applied to Paul, and it fit. He wasn’t one to “go along to get along.” When he took over at Alcoa, the old ways were out—including some of the old people. He was an outsider who ruffled feathers in the hidebound Pittsburgh corporate culture. Asked to attend a function at the renowned Laurel Valley Golf Club, he asked if they accepted blacks and women. The answer was no, and Paul declined, saying Alcoa would no longer pay for memberships at clubs with such exclusions. He set up a new, egalitarian culture with a new corporate headquarters embodying the change. He was a crusader, setting a national example for seeking zero workplace injuries and railing against medication errors caused by physicians’ illegible handwriting and other flawed but remediable practices.
I did end up getting to work with Paul after all. When John Craig suddenly became very sick and died 10 years ago, I told John I’d take over our old benchmarking project, which he’d restarted in retirement and called Pittsburgh Today. Paul headed Pittsburgh Today’s advisory board, and we’ve worked together ever since. I sought his advice on matters that required it and learned from his general acuity in framing issues, getting information that can actually lead to action and “not being denied execution.”
Our board—an august cast of a dozen Pittsburgh leaders—met three afternoons a year at Paul’s North Shore offices. They came to improve Pittsburgh, which remains our calling, but Paul was the real draw. You realized you were in the presence of a very unusual person, whose analytical powers got him closer to the truth more quickly than anyone else you’d ever met. At least, that’s how I felt. I’ve known a lot of very smart people. And I remember thinking: “Paul isn’t that much smarter, but he is a little bit smarter. And when you get to a certain level, that little bit makes a big difference.”
Maybe it wasn’t just intelligence. Will and commitment played key roles too. He believed that getting the facts and carefully analyzing them would show you the right path. And he was determined to follow that path, come what may. For Paul, doing the right thing was both good business and the recipe for a better society and world. I guess it boils down to what we call character.
Of course, he had a sense of humor and a warm side as well, which I got to know and appreciate, and we developed a nice friendship. But I mainly knew him in the context of making Pittsburgh a better place, and in that realm he left a long list of accomplishments. Rather than list them though, I’ll pass along something I found by accident as I spent a quarantined May Saturday cleaning my home office.
It was Paul’s introductory statement during that meeting when I first met him 23 years ago.
“Borrowing from 15 years of government service and more than 20 years in the private sector, I was trying to think: What are the common elements of what I would consider to be success?
“Where you find real success, first of all you find a vision of excellence. It’s not just one person’s vision of excellence but one that is shared in the community. The second characteristic of success is not being denied execution. It’s a determination to knock down walls or whatever it takes to succeed. And the third element is speed of execution. You don’t sit around and wait and hope and wish. You actually go commit things and do things.
“And then I would say—and this is now borrowing from Alcoa experience to a degree—you really don’t deserve to grow until you do well with what you’ve already got. And at least when I look at our community, we don’t fall very high on that standard of actually doing very well with what we have. I would not say that we’re terrible compared to other places. But I would also say that’s not the right standard if you really want to be a place of excellence.
“Government institutions have lacked the beacons of light in the private sector in raising the level of their game. And the difference between what’s possible and what’s being done is maybe 50 percent of the potential value creation from the assets that are provided by the citizens. Until we can make serious progress in demonstrating to the citizens who are already here that it’s our intent to execute better than anyone else and to get rid of, for example, the extra 50 percent of the fire stations we have and overcome all these other things that we kind of take for granted that we can’t overcome, we’re going to be a second rate place.
“If we could say, ‘Your kid can get the best education here, and it’s the safest place in the country,’ we’d have a hell of a lot more people come here.
“Indianapolis created a metropolitan government in the late 1960s—that was 30 years ago that we had a model of how to govern ourselves. We have got to get on with this!
“Until we understand what it means to be truly excellent in the 21st century—we’re going to be a second rate place.
“And it needs to be in the public sector. Because if you’re making a decision—as I used to when I was in New York when we were deciding where to move International Paper’s administrative operations—what you look for is the quality of life. The availability of great medical care, great education institutions, roads without potholes, relatively safe places where you don’t have to worry about getting hit in the head if you’re walking the streets at 9 o’clock at night.
“Those are the things that matter. And I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of those aspects, but our efficiency in utilization of funds that have been entrusted to public officials is terrible. Terrible by comparison to what it could be. So I think we have a long way to go to deserve to grow and to deserve people to make intentional decisions to locate here and bring their families here.”
That passage encapsulates the man I knew and the candor and vision he brought to Pittsburgh. It’s the job of those of us who are involved here to carry the torch forward.