October 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 5 // Commentary // 5COM2

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What Business Are We In?

There is a parallel between U.S. industrial firms that have been successful for 100 or more years and what Cooperative Extension must do to remain viable in the years ahead. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal provides valuable food for thought on how we can most-effectively market our organization. As we ask ourselves "What Business Are We In?", it is imperative that we focus on Extension's strength. We know and serve the adults and youth of rural America, providing them education in agriculture and home economics.

Earl C. Johnson
Associate Specialist
Program and Staff Development
Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Internet address: xtpvrm@lsuvm.sncc.lsu.edu

What makes some businesses survive so successfully over a long period of time? A study addressing the question of business longevity was the topic of a recent newspaper article (Jennings & Grossman, 1995).

The research study examined eight U.S. industrial firms which had paid at least an annual dividend to stockholders for 100 years or more. These companies were Pennwalt Corp., Singer, Pullman Inc., Scovil Inc., Diamond Match Co., Ludlow Corp., Stanley Works, and Corning Glass Works. The article compared success of these companies over the long haul to that of Tony Bennett, a singer whose on-going career dates back to the 1950s.

These firms and Tony Bennett have survival in common. The factors accounting for this survival are addressed in the article.

The companies all held fast to a WBAWI?--or "what business are we in?"--philosophy. Each of the eight firms "knew their strengths, developed strong market presences based on these strengths and never forgot their roots."

Officers and CEOs of these companies by-and-large came up through the ranks, perhaps demonstrating the importance of continuity and stability. The firms had a "strong commitment to integrity," and depended on one-on-one feedback from clientele to stay in touch with their needs. As one company officer put it, "We call on customers, on suppliers, we look at the bottom line of course, but we know how that line reached the bottom."

For all of today's management fads and buzzwords, the authors of this article point to a simple "Tony Bennett factor" for success in the marketplace. They summarize the keys to business longevity as quality product, customer service, focus, cost-consciousness, home-grown management, and integrity.

How does this article relate to the Cooperative Extension Service? Our strength in Extension is knowing and serving the adults and youth of rural America, providing to them education in agriculture and home economics.

When we drift from our rural agriculture/home economics base, we dilute our strength and purpose as an organization. We become just one of many agencies seeking to stay alive by trying to do too many things for too many people.

Certainly, funding reality dictates we serve both rural and urban America, and we do so in subject areas peripheral to agriculture and home economics. However, the more we are forced to depart from our traditional clientele and subject matter base, the more difficult it becomes to preserve our organizational identity and effectiveness.

As an Extension educator, how do you feel about who we should serve and what we should teach? Your response to these remarks is invited and welcomed.


Jennings, M. M., & Grossman, L. (1995, June 26). The Tony Bennett factor. The Wall Street Journal, p. A12.