The world lost a great man, and I lost a good friend, with the passing of Robert S. Fenn on April 23, 2009. Bob and I were friends for over 25 years and, for 10 of them, we were business partners in ValueNet International, Inc. Bob Fenn was one of the most progressive and visionary thinkers I have ever known and it is worth a moment of OpEdNews readers' time to take notice of Bob's remarkable life.
First, biographica. Bob was born in 1929 and raised in China, where his parents were Presbyterian missionary educators. He studied at the College of Chinese Studies in Beijing and earned a B.A. in East Asian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and an M.A. from Columbia University.
Fluent in Mandarin, Bob served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War ... as a bulldozer operator (!).
Bob began his management career in the 1950s as station manager on Wake Island for Pan Am Airlines. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was human resources vice president at Citicorp and at Warner Communications, and international personnel director for Celanese Corporation.
Bob's cross-cultural upbringing made him an astute observer and student of cultures, organizations, communication dynamics, and societal change. As a consultant in the '70s, Bob advised Xerox, International Paper, Citicorp, New Jersey Sports Authority, The New York Racing Association, New York Life, CIGNA, Colonial Life and Accident, and many others in these areas.
Bob was also one of the founders of The New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation.
As a management theorist, Bob was an early collaborator with George Odiorne on "Management by Objectives;" with Tom Gilbert on "Human Competence;" and with Alvin and Heidi Toffler on "Future Shock" and "The Third Wave."
During the 1980s, Bob was national director of training for The Travelers Corporation, where I met him. In 1993, we left Travelers to form ValueNet International, Inc., a management consulting firm. He retired from our firm in 2002.
These facts speak to the man's achievements but they reveal little about the man himself. The essence of Bob Fenn, to me, is captured in five words: perspective, proportion, passion, possibility, and persistence.
I met Bob in a September 1983 job interview. During the interview, Bob asked my views on the recent downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over the Sea of Japan near Sakhalin Island. I said I thought it was an outrageous, unwarranted act that deserved a strong and immediate response.
To my surprise, he was not so sure about that. How much of my perspective, he wondered, might be influenced by bias in the American press? Was I sure of all the facts? Had I considered the Soviet perspective on the matter? What did the Japanese think? The Koreans? The Chinese? Could it have been just a series of mistakes? Would my opinion change if that were the case?
The notion of considering issues, ideas, and problems from multiple, often opposing, perspectives before drawing conclusions was a new and appealing one to me. I knew then that I wanted to work for and learn from this man.
From Bob, I learned how to keep issues and events, even very personal ones, in proportion. One example: soon after we teamed up at Travelers, a neighbor's infant son died of sudden infant death syndrome. Our son was the same age and the thought of "crib death" was terrifying to us.
As I told Bob about the little boy's death, I exclaimed, "What a catastrophe!" "No, it really isn't," he replied. "When 100,000 people die in an earthquake or when whole cities are destroyed, that's a catastrophe. What happened to your neighbors is a tragedy ... but not a catastrophe." He was right: the difference is proportion.
Bob Fenn had a passion for life in all its forms. From new adventures to new lands to new cultures and people to new foods, Bob was always ready to go where he had not gone before. In the late '90s, we developed a large Pakistani bank as a client. Bob could not wait to start work in Karachi.
I spoke with him after he had been in Pakistan about a week. "You wouldn't believe it," he told me. "It's hot and dirty; the food and the smells are, well, let's say you might not like them; there are animals and sometimes sewage in the streets, it's wall-to-wall people, and I have an armed bodyguard and a driver." Then, after a pause, he said, "I love it!"