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Q & A WALTER B. GERKEN

SOCIAL CONSCIENCE IN CORPORATE RANKS : Executive Says Corporations Should Strive to Make the World They Work in a Better Place for All to Live

January 04, 1988

Walter Bland Gerken got a taste of public service in the early 1950s, when he became supervisor for budget and administrative analysis for Wisconsin.

It was a job that introduced him to the state's mental hospitals and prisons, conservation efforts and homes for the criminally insane, a job that showed him the good that government can do and one he has never forgotten.

But after four years in a service that he still considers "noble," the self-proclaimed "sharp young guy" was invited to join Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Milwaukee .

"And so I did, for the opportunity that I could make some more money," Gerken said. "And it was a very interesting job, nothing wrong with that. But, when I did that, I always had a guilt complex that I had sold out to make a buck. So I've always, therefore, tried to find ways that I could satisfy this need. I was always an activist. I was a do-gooder."

Gerken, now 65, contends that his bleeding-heart streak was born at Wesleyan University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in economics, and at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University, where he earned a master's of public affairs.

It was nurtured in Wisconsin state government and a later stint on the Milwaukee school board . It was one factor that brought him to Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. as financial vice president in 1967.

"I came out here 20 years ago, I think, because Pacific Mutual has had a long history of leaders who were activists, like Asa Call, who was a 'Mr. Republican' in Southern California for a long sweep of time," Gerken said. "His successor was active. And therefore, when I was recruited by a headhunter to be the financial vice president here, the fact that I had been an activist was appealing to the young leadership of this company."

Gerken has spent the last two decades upholding his company's tradition of social consciousness. During his rise to and tenure as chairman and chief executive of Pacific Mutual, he has served on an impressive roster of boards and committees, including stints as chairman of the UC Irvine Foundation, the United Way of Los Angeles and Occidental College's Board of Trustees.

He has served on the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Board of Trustees and the UCLA/Rand Center for the Study of Soviet International Behavior's Board of Overseers. He is an active Democrat . Gerken is married, lives in Corona del Mar and is the father of six grown children.

In September, 1986, Gerken relinquished the title of chief executive of Pacific Mutual. He retired as chairman of the board a year later, after reaching the company's mandatory retirement age. He remains on the board of directors as chairman of the company's executive committee.

In 1987, Gerken was elected by the University of California Board of Regents to be a Regent's Professor at UC Irvine. In that capacity, he will deliver a speech on Jan. 12 to students, faculty and the community on corporate ethics.

But public spirit is not the only facet of the Gerken personality. One colleague, in an in-house farewell tribute , said: "All I can do is laugh. I just think about the guy and I laugh. He's got such a great sense of humor."

That humor is evident throughout the printed tribute, which is graced with photographs of Gerken in Astaire-like tails, tap - dancing his way into retirement (above). The tails--and a photo session--were a surprise gift from co-workers, who knew of his soft spot for hoofing.

In a recent interview at Pacific Mutual's Newport Beach headquarters, Gerken warmed up for his speech (not his dance routine) by telling Times Staff Writer Maria L. La Ganga that social consciousness and business savvy can--and should--coexist.

Q: How do you define ethics in business?

A: I think it's very obvious that ethics involves adherence to the laws of your society. But it's really more than that. I think it's setting a tone, and I think a leader of a company has to set the tone. I think that you can't always be looking for ways to slide around something, even though it may be legal and you're not going to be put in jail for it. I think that you just have to be up front with people. There is integrity in saying what you believe and mean and honoring a commitment.

Q: Has this point of view ever directly affected Pacific Mutual's operations?

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