01 Oct 1999

The Class of 1974: Timed for a Change

by Charles B. ("Chuck") Mercer


In some ways it doesn't seem that long ago that our class began its studies at Soldiers Field, but a look back at the first Harbus edition in the fall of 1972 seems to reveal another century. King of Hearts and Diary of a Mad Housewife were playing at the Central; Buddy's Sirloin Pit was advertising a $2.46 charbroiled special. Most of the class and even some of the faculty sported long hair, and noting the large percentage of single men in the class, the paper's lead article announced that we would provide "a rich vein for those ladies that will be looking for a mate."

Student president Chuck Belle (MBA '73) promised to attempt to install a pass-fail system and said that "free nights are few . . . but we have a social committee that shall pleasure the time." Dean Fouraker's welcome included the promise, "You will discover you are working harder than ever." (This was our first exposure to the case method of separating the wheat from the chaff.) Nixon led McGovern in our Presidential class poll, the reverse of '73's, probably because fully 38 percent of our class were veterans.

Thanks to Professor John Kotter, there's no conjecture about what happened to us after our two-year business boot camp. Around the time of our last reunion, his extensive, twenty-year study of our class culminated in The New Rules, a book that not only documented our careers but also revealed the cataclysmic nature of the changes taking place in American business. The oil embargo of 1973 and the globalization of markets and competition changed American business forever. Twenty years out, over one-third of the class had been fired or laid off at least once. Fundamental practices that worked for most of the century - large staff groups, methodical decision-making, and an inward focus - no longer made good business sense.

As a result, the class moved away from upward paths in large, traditional organizations. In 1992, 90 percent of those with a net worth of over $5 million had made their money in small business. Professor Kotter estimated that by our 30th Reunion, at least 75 percent of the class would be working in small business.

François Glemet speaks for many of us in the profile he recently wrote for this year's reunion: "I have to admit that, back in '74, I did not have the remotest idea that this is how my life would unfold over the following quarter-century. Sometimes I wonder how it all happened. I have been a traveler and a student of a world that has become more complex and more diverse."

Jack of Many Trades

Since graduating from Harvard College in 1963, Chuck Mercer has worked as a textbook editor, encyclopedia salesman, ship broker, submarine supply officer, lobster sales manager, assistant manager for a large seafood distributor, eel exporter, seafood trader, and fish packer. He has also cast a wide net in an effort to keep up with his classmates as 1974's class secretary and Section F correspondent for the past 25 years.

Currently, Mercer is launching an organic, fish-based fertilizer distributorship out of his homes in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and Sun Valley, Idaho. He also publishes a resort resources guide, Local Favorites, which focuses on the Sun Valley area. "It's pretty amazing for me to look back on the list of all the endeavors I've been involved with since 1963," Mercer says. "The only constants since HBS are my wife, Paige, who's still smiling, and all my good friends, including those from the Class of '74."

Asked to reflect on his current activities, Mercer says, "Doing business with Idaho farmers and small businesses in Sun Valley can hardly be called work. My biggest worries now are missing the brown drake hatch on Silver Creek and dodging elk on the road to Stanley."

As I looked around Section F in 1974, I knew that my sectionmates would be successful but, like François, not to what extent. Who would have guessed that Peter Harf would take a German commodity chemical business to a major position in detergents and perfumes, that Eileen Friars would trade in her jeans and long tresses and take charge of a $20-billion credit-card operation, or that Jeff Seder would, in his spare time, discover a scientific means of predicting world-class performance in racehorses? Section F is not unique in its achievements. Who on the B-School Blades could have predicted that when Barry Allardice stopped living out of his car he would become an investment banker? How about Larry Kramer's Internet millions or Meade Sutterfield's cashing out with Nextel? One person knew a career not to be taken: Jim Stern decided against retail. His rejection letter from J.C. Penney won a Harbus contest and was published in the paper. The future banking mogul did, however, win the stock picking contest. The Reverend Joe Parrish, now of St. John's Parish, was among the runners-up.

The journey has not been easy; the class has experienced its share of deaths, disappointments, loss of loved ones, ongoing physical ailments, and business failures. But we have persevered. Having climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and gone to 27,000 feet on Everest, we are now turning our considerable energies more and more to giving back. Typically, much effort is original and entrepreneurial: starting film schools for inner-city youth or tackling the problem of what to do with eighteen-year-olds emerging from foster homes, for example. More traditional institutions, such as the UNC Business School, the League for the Hard of Hearing, The Cleveland Opera, the Boy Scouts of America, the State Botanical Gardens of Georgia, and untold other worthy causes are the beneficiaries of '74's hard-won experience.

In the first fall issue of the Harbus, Dean Fouraker continued his greeting: "A general manager has a social responsibility that requires a professional response. I hope that your two years at the Harvard Business School will enable you to contribute an effective response to this serious challenge and that you derive pleasure and satisfaction from that contribution."

As class bard, I hereby report that the shade of Dean Fouraker may rest in peace: the Class of 1974 has met the challenge.


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