by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

Once upon a time, when Baby Boomers ventured into the business world, those who could manage operations were Kings. But the ascendancy of financial re-engineering changed all that. Along with product lines and business units, even the most talented individuals turned into Pawns – and thereby became expendable.

Let’s be frank right off the bat. My friend Art has had a career many might envy. Affable, talented, with a razor-sharp intellect, he once managed operations worth over a billion in today’s dollars and earned the respect of employees and customers alike.

But now, at age 59, Art fully admits his career’s at a temporary dead end. And he’s as dismayed and frustrated about it as those at lower rungs of the corporate ladder.

“Yes, we have some savings,” he says. “We don’t have kids in college, and we weren’t heavily involved in the stock market. But like so many other Boomers, I’m finding it hard to get a job now, even worthwhile consulting jobs.”

Art’s wife Susan, 57, has been able to find an accounting position in Nashville, where the couple lives. But she’s no longer a department head, as she once was. And Art has so far shied away from using his savings to launch an ambitious venture of his own. “I don’t know if I have the requisite ‘fire in the belly’ to be a committed lone wolf entrepreneur,” he tells me. “I’d really like to get back to what I do well, which is managing a major operation.”

How did a lauded executive with 30-odd years of top-level managerial experience end up grossly underemployed years before retirement age? Like so many Boomers, Art has essentially been the victim of “financial re-engineering,” that all-purpose grab bag term which has come to mean the perpetual rejiggering of a company’s products, properties, divisions, and all-too-often people, in order to squeeze the greatest possible financial returns out of a firm’s designated assets.

Art’s field is healthcare. But virtually every sector of the US economy has been affected by the spectre of financial re-engineering the past few decades. Old concepts of corporate integrity, mission, and loyalty to employees have flown out the window, say critics, to be replaced by an environment where short-term advantage has supplanted long-term goals and the Main Chance is the only chance that counts.

Here Today, Who Knows Where Tomorrow

“It was different when I started out,” says Art, with more than a tinge of nostalgia. Born and raised in a small town in the South, he comes from a mini-dynasty of rural physicians. His dad, granddad, and two great uncles were all country doctors, and his mother trained as a nurse.

But Art got a business degree from West Virginia University and started out in the audit division of a Big Eight accounting firm in Norfolk. Ironically, he ended up in healthcare, like his family, by doing such a good job for clients in that sector, a regional senior living chain recruited him.

So began 32 years working for six different companies in the healthcare sector, some of which seemed to be periodically chopped up, patched together, switched around, and swapped shamelessly like trading cards.

The first company Art worked for was purchased by a much larger competitor five years into his tenure. That worked out well for Art, who eventually became a divisional president, with responsibility for over 250 separate healthcare facilities. But when this company, too, was “re-engineered” by asset shufflers, his position disappeared, and he went to work for a smaller outfit, itself in the midst of a realignment of product and service lines, as well as one of the first “securitizations” of healthcare real estate assets.

Through these moves and re-positionings, Art observed major changes in basic corporate attitudes. “When I started working,” he observes, “competent, ambitious managers strove to prove their worth in line positions, overseeing operations, products, and people. Staff people were in the background, while those in line operations held sway.”

But by the 1980’s, things began to change rapidly. Financial re-engineering became all the rage, and operating executives took a back seat to a new crop of would-be “dealmakers,” whose main objective seemed to be shifting assets – and people – around for the quickest possible return.

Art was only in his 30’s then, but he remembers old timers’ resentment of a seemingly endless stream of newly-minted finance MBA’s, who swooped into corporate offices with confidence verging on conceit, convinced that they had reinvented the wheel and that those who failed to concentrate on immediate “optimization” of results were hopelessly behind the times.

“I guess these fellas are all over 40 now,” laughs Art. “But back then, they seemed very young and very zealous. Meanwhile, operations began to suffer, because the Best and the Brightest no longer wanted to spend their careers actually managing things, instead of shuffling assets and doing deals.”

At the turn of the Millennium, Art was recruited as a senior executive of a start-up company which was expected to evolve into a major player in assisted-living, home healthcare, and private caregiver services. Here, he experienced the fickleness of financiers and Wall Street’s frenzied chase for the financial fad of the moment.

“Our president and founder, a respected physician, had lined up what seemed to be very solid financing from a flamboyant venture capitalist,” Art relates. “We were promised substantial financial backing for several years, enough to provide a platform for sustained growth.”

But the superstar financier pulled out at the last moment, leaving the new company essentially high and dry. “It was those heady years of the Dot.Com Boom,” Art says, “and the financier decided healthcare wasn’t Boom-y enough. He abandoned us for some West Coast computer start-ups, telling us he could make incredible returns there – I think the figure was 30 percent a year. And No, I’m not sure what happened to him.”

What happened to Art was major disillusionment. The start-up couldn’t make it, and a subsequent short stint at another healthcare company also disappointed, as it, too, went through “re-engineering” and changed its focus. About two years ago, Art went out on his own, but he hasn’t enjoyed it much and would like to be part of a corporate team again, if the possibility presents itself.

“I’ll bounce back, and so will the Boomer generation,” he says confidently. “It’s good so many of us are angry. We’ll move through the anger and shake things up, as we always have.”

One thing that sorely needs shaking up, Art believes, is companies’ recent reliance on short-term financial gains at the expense of long-term prosperity, for themselves and their employees. “A company is only as good as its managers and its workers,” he says. “The entire corporate world has to get back to basics. And the root of those basics is operations.”

What Do You Think?

Have you or anyone you know been “re-engineered” right out of a job or a company?

How have corporations in the US and Canada gone astray?

Have Baby Boomers been particularly hurt by financial re-engineering?

Have those in line operations suffered at the expense of financial wiz kids?

Do you think many companies are finally seeing the light?

Will Boomers return to corporate jobs as the economy picks up, or will they prefer to take the entrepreneurial route back to financial prosperity?

For the next story in the series, “Will Boomers Save Twitter?” click on: http://wp.me/pxD3J-K

For the Introduction to Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation, please go to: http://wp.me/pxD3J-3

For a look at how “Sophisticated Communes” may take Baby Boomers full circle as we age, see: http://wp.me/pxD3J-x