Paul Newman challenges corporations to donate more
'Forum on Philanthropy in Business' lecturer gives away millions in food company profits
By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
"I remember him leaving on a train one rainy day to meet with manufacturers Spalding and Wilson in Chicago," Newman recalled. "When he came back, the two companies had fronted him goods on consignment, based on the strong reputation of our family store."
This act of corporate generosity stuck with Newman throughout his long film career and was spurred into action when he started his food products company in the early 1980s.
Though his recipe for salad dressing had humble beginnings - his family gave out bottles of it as Christmas gifts - the product spawned a multi-million dollar business, known as Newman's Own Inc. The company has diversified over the last 18 years and now makes everything from spaghetti sauce to organic pretzels.
But while the business has enjoyed enormous success, all the after-tax profits are given to charity. To date, the company has donated more than $100 million. Newman hopes this act of philanthropy will inspire other corporations to help those in need.
Newman was on campus September 7 as the inaugural speaker of the Haas School of Business's "Forum on Philanthropy in Business." The annual lecture series is part of the school's Socially Responsible Business Leadership Program, which also includes a business ethics lectureship and student workshop.
Conversing with Laura Tyson, Haas School dean, and business colleague Liz Robbins, Newman, 75, said there has never been a "plan" for his business, and "there never will be," adding that humor and "whimsy" are key ingredients to the success of his venture.
"We're successful because we don't take ourselves too seriously," said a folksy, bespectacled Newman, dressed casually in deck shoes and khaki pants. He also credits the company's stringent quality control and employee input on product selection. "We've only had two failures so far."
Newman was told early on that his salad dressing would sell only if his face were on the label. Normally reluctant to attract attention to himself, Newman relented, figuring the "shameless exploitation" was at least "in pursuit of a common good."
Tyson pointed out that philanthropy seems to come in two forms: arms-length and hands on. Newman seems to have embraced the latter, even serving as a cabin volunteer at one of the camps he sponsors for children with serious diseases.
"I was frightened of being a cabin volunteer," revealed Newman. "I thought it would be terrible if, as the camps founder, I was no good at it."
But Newman rose to the occasion and says "it's one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had."
Many of the young children at his camps are unaware of Newman's fame, he said. One little girl came up to him at lunchtime and asked who he was. He saw a carton of lemonade with his picture and showed it to the little girl. "Oh, are you missing?" the girl asked sympathetically.
When asked why he devotes so much to children with illnesses, Newman replied: "I've had such a string of good fortune in my life, but these kids have been brutalized by luck and most won't get the chance to turn it around. Those who are most lucky should hold their hands out to those who aren't."
Newman said he wonders why this kind of generosity can't be part of the corporate mentality as well.
"I respect generosity in people, and I respect it in companies too," he said. "I don't look at it as philanthropy, I see it as an investment in the community." And his advice to business students who want to do both "good and well" when they become corporate leaders?
"Gather the troops inside the wall and storm the gates," he said. "Young people are the real hope for change in this area. It may take some time, but it will happen."
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