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Summertime musings / June 26, 2019
Is there a more gratifying business story than a company founder retaking control of an operation and fixing it after the previous purchaser mucked everything up?

It’s happening here in Mecklenburg with R.T. “Tommy” Arnold moving this month to reopen one of the county’s most venerable businesses, Virginia Homes in Boydton. The thorough going revitalization of Virginia Homes lies ahead, of course, but what a nice dose of news to start the summer — solid manufacturing jobs provided by a locally run company, always an event worth celebrating.

The story in brief: Arnold, who founded Virginia Homes in 1969, sold the business a few years ago after a long and successful run in the manufactured home industry. The new ownership came in with a different idea of what the business should be — all fair enough, it was their operation by this point — but the result was a sad one for Boydton, which had long counted on Virginia Homes for payroll dollars circulating around town until the local plant closed in May and the jobs were shipped off to Pennsylvania. (Boydton once was home to another factory operation, in textiles, but those days and those jobs are long gone.) The business acumen of Arnold is rivaled only by his civic mindedness — not for nothing does the South Hill library bear the Arnold name — but this time it appears he’s found a way to do good and do well in one fell swoop. And the town and county will share the benefits. We’re rooting big-time for this venture to succeed.

On a different yet related note, another story that popped up in the Richmond business pages this week caught our eye: the sale of The C.F. Sauer Company to a private equity firm. Uh-oh. For condiment and spice lovers, this is distressing news — is there any brand that private equity ownership can’t ruin? After all, the point of these deals is to extract “hidden value” from companies, which usually means selling off assets, laying off workers, or doing more in this vein to undermine the quality of operations from within. It’s a rare private equity deal that leaves homegrown businesses stronger than they were before. On that front, let it be said that C.S. Sauer not only makes the best mayonnaise ever crafted — that would be the Duke’s brand, for the culinary uninitiated — but their mustards and spices are terrific, too. Can the new ownership (Charlotte-based Falfurrias Capital Partners) avoid the pitfall of turning C.F. Sauer into “just another brand”? We’re not optimistic, but let’s see how things go and reserve judgment until later. To be continued ….

Sticking with a business theme: You might not believe it, but one of the major issues being bandied about in the Democratic presidential primary also happens to be the country’s most important business debate — what to do about extreme market concentration in the hands of a few companies. This fundamentally anti-competitive landscape depresses job creation, employee wages, small business startups and economic opportunity writ large. The government figures into this discussion because only the government can set and enforce the rules that markets require to function. And sometimes markets function badly because of rotten government policy (or lack of any policy at all).

Right now, America leans way too much in the direction of countenancing a predator economy — where big firms, especially in the tech realm, can squelch meaningful competition and crowd out future rivals. Markets become less dynamic, with less opportunity for upward mobility for everyone outside of a select few as a handful of companies come to dominate key industries. Around the turn of the last century, we saw this with the Gilded Era and the consolidation of power, both economic and political, in the hands of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Carnegies. Today’s untouchables bear the names of Bezos, Zuckerberg and the like, or operate under corporate nameplates such as Bayer-Monsanto, or Bank of America, or any number of companies that have gone on acquisition sprees that achieve little besides lining shareholders’ pockets. One hopes that the C.S. Sauer deal, just to cite one example, doesn’t simply leave us stuck in a Kraft-run world — but the evidence on this front is not encouraging.

By the way, the New York Times published an excellent profile this week on Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who is rising in the primary field, and broached the subject of her favorite president. The answer? Teddy Roosevelt. Here’s the key passage:

Warren admires Roosevelt for his efforts to break up the giant corporations of his day — Standard Oil and railroad holding companies — in the name of increasing competition. She thinks that today that model would increase hiring and productivity. Warren, who has called herself “a capitalist to my bones,” appreciated Roosevelt’s argument that trustbusting was helpful, not hostile, to the functioning of the market and the government. She brought up his warning that monopolies can use their wealth and power to strangle democracy. “If you go back and read his stuff, it’s not only about the economic dominance; it’s the political influence,” she said.

What’s crucial, Roosevelt believed, is to make the market serve “the public good.” Warren puts it like this: “It’s structural change that interests me. And when I say structural, the point is to say if you get the structures right, then the markets start to work to produce value across the board, not just sucking it all up to the top.”

A confession: I am a huge Liz Warren fan, a crush that grows by the day. We’ll see, of course, whether she gets the nomination to run against Donald Trump next year. I’m not looking forward to 2020; it’s hard to imagine an uglier presidential campaign, nor one where the stakes could possibly be higher. All this said, the Democratic candidates will be debating on TV tonight and again on Thursday (the field is too large to have everyone on stage together at once), so it hardly feels wrong or premature to point out that important issues are being discussed intelligently despite the overall cesspool quality of presidential politics. Ready or not, we’re in the early stages of the Mother of All Election Seasons, with no relief in sight. Oh yay.

Speaking of which: Fresh off his victory in the 15th Senate District Republican primary, state Sen. Frank Ruff has sent in a column today on the subject of bullying. What prompted Ruff’s interest in this topic is unknown, but his tame (and frankly lame) meditation on bullying’s spread lays the problem in part on declining church attendance and insufficient action by teachers and educators to discourage abusive behavior among kids. There’s also the obligatory mention of social media as an aggravating factor — all true and fair — but Ruff is curiously quiet on another everyday condition that encourages bullying: what kids see and hear from grown-ups, especially adults in positions of authority and power.

If Ruff is sincere in his desire to tamp down on the scourge of bullying, when might we expect to see a column from him decrying the fact that the United States government, acting in the people’s name, currently incarcerates small children at the nation’s border? Leaving them frightened, hungry and alone, taken from parents and caregivers, and denied the comfort of a bed to sleep in, or soap, clean clothing and toothpaste for basic hygiene. When will Ruff enlighten us with his thoughts on a matter as fundamental as how the current White House administration treats the weakest among us?

When, also, might he broach the topic of a prominent woman this week credibly accusing the president of the United States of rape? (E. Jean Carroll, advice columnist for Elle magazine, has alleged that Trump assaulted her in an upscale Manhattan department store in the mid-1990s, joining the more than a dozen women who have accused the president of sexual assault. Keep in mind, of course, that Trump basically admitted to such behavior in the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. Also, consider that rape is a crime motivated by the desire to control and dominate women, as much as a desire for sex.) If I didn’t know better, I would guess that Ruff’s interest in bullying is about as serious and meaningful as Melania Trump’s ridiculous #BeBest campaign, but maybe I’m wrong to think this. At any rate, the senator has an open invitation to break the word limit with a column delving into how the president’s personal conduct (Twitter feed included) might adversely affect impressionable young minds. We’ll be waiting.

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