Whether it's running a business, delivering an evangelical message at prayer breakfasts or representing his constituency in Colorado's Statehouse and the U.S. Congress, Bill Armstrong leaves little doubt where he stands: Strong Christian beliefs guide his life, and business calls for tough -- but fair -- competition.
Colorado Christian University named Armstrong, 72, president in August 2006, a new role for a man who has owned or started numerous businesses, served in the Colorado Legislature, U.S. House of Representatives (1972-78) and U.S. Senate (1978-90). He also has sat on the boards of public companies, and owned and/or operated many private companies, including radio and television stations, a daily newspaper, a real estate brokerage company, and title insurance and investment firms.
The Denver Business Journal spoke with Armstrong just prior to CCU hosting its seventh Values-Aligned Leadership Summit (VALS) on April 22.
Q: What did you hope this year's leadership summit would accomplish?
We wanted to focus attention on the same underlying issues that we always have at VALS. The people who started this were prescient. It's dramatically even more clear today: There's a crisis of values in American business and, for that matter, in American life. ... It's pretty clear that a high percentage are wrong, with low conduct in high places, cutting corners in ethics, shortchanging the stockholders.
I'm a businessman through and through. Clearly, there's got to be a lot more to success in business and in life than how much money one can make. ... The values that seemingly are getting lost in the shuffle in business and in American life are truth, honor, integrity, customer service and a sense of obligation to customers and shareholders and employees -- what we would call at CCU "servant leadership."
We don't think the greatest leaders are those who shout the loudest or swagger the most or own private airplanes ... but at the end of the day, or of the fiscal year, or at the end of life, there's a lot of things more important than what you made. It's important what role-modeling you have done in the process.
Q: Where does executive compensation fall under all of this?
It certainly does fit in with the overall question of values in American business. I have been a member of the board of nine Fortune 500 companies, and on the compensation committees of a number of them. I am appalled at the compensation arrangements that boards of directors have entered into. I think it's even worse for the government to try to set those compensations.
But when directors enter into sweetheart deals, I think that's shameful. The boards I was on, there was nothing like the deals we've been reading about on Wall Street.
For example, Richard Grasso: I don't fault him for fighting to keep what he bargained for and earned. I think those directors were asleep at the switch and betrayed the people they were elected to serve. I also think Grasso over-reached; but once he earned it and got it, I think it was wrong to try to extract it from him. What does that say about those directors who caused it to happen and allowed it to happen?
In the Enron case, some whistleblowers within the company came to the audit committee of the board and said there were problems you ought to look into. The board went to the CEO, asked if everything was OK and he said yes. They weren't doing their job.
Being a member of the board of a public company is not supposed to be a country club or an old boys' club. Having said that, I think most public companies are not guilty of abuses that have come to light. And most CEOs are reasonable and restrained in what they're paid, and should be well-paid.
I think the situation is even worse in government. While there is plenty of greed and corruption in business, I think the greed and corruption in Congress is worse. And I spent 18 years in Congress. I think the petty chiseling and the corruption and the loss of bearing by members of Congress is really a national disgrace and very worrisome.
For example, they browbeat the mortgage-lending industry into making loans they should not have made ... through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Community Reinvestment Act ... They overleveraged; they owned or guaranteed $5 trillion and had nothing [to back it with].
The mess that guys in Congress have made -- lack of integrity and honor in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans -- is absolutely a disgrace. And nothing's being done about it. In fact, it's getting worse.
They gave $5 billion to the General Motors Acceptance Corp., which used the money to lower down payments on cars to zero and to lower the credit score [needed to buy a car]. So they're pumping more money to encourage consumers to do exactly the thing that got them in trouble to begin with.
Q: What steps do you recommend to fix things?
Several things. First of all, we need to rekindle the ideals of honor, integrity, truthfulness and service -- and these are not things government can impose; they have to come from within people. That's what our university is about. It's a values-based university, and we wear these values on our sleeves. We honor people who compete hard in business and other fields, but do so on a basis that reflects these qualities.
Second, the VALS event is about outreach to the community, to provide an example to the public, and to the business public, of people who embody these values. ... We believe in tough, bruising competition, but in fair competition, and do so on the basis of high ethical standards.
We want to expose our students to business men and women in the community. So at every table, there were one or two students, and business men and women. It's an educational opportunity for our students, but also for the business men and women.
We have an ulterior motive of introducing those two groups. Students need to understand what makes the leaders of business tick. It's a chance to have an up-front, face-to-face discussion with someone who runs a company or organization.
Q: Will President Barack Obama's stimulus plan work?
It's already making matters much worse. First, it's fostering a false notion that the private sector failed, when almost all the problems we've discussed were caused by the government. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are not private enterprises; they're government enterprises.
It perpetuates a revisionist history, that the private sector failed rather than the public sector.
Second, we've committed all this money, and even the Congressional Budget Office says the latest bailout bill will make matters worse, not better, that the gross domestic product will be less as a result of the passage of this bill than if it hadn't been passed.
Third, we're creating a situation where the government picks the winners and losers. They're pumping tens of billions of dollars into GM and Chrysler, to the disadvantage of Ford. Ford is the company that didn't get in trouble, and now it faces competition helped by the government.
And in the banking industry: Why would we want to reward people who have been reckless and irresponsible?
The housing-finance industry is essentially federalized. ... I do think the economy will recover, but will recover more slowly as a result of these ill-considered measures.
We have set an example of a Congress that panicked, passed legislation they barely smelled, let alone read.
Q: How do you like being a college president?
It's absolutely the most energizing thing I've ever done. I've had opportunities to do a lot of fun things. I started or bought nine private companies, been on the board of nine public companies, have a public ministry, had 10 years in the Legislature and 18 years in D.C.
But I have never undertaken something about which I have a sense of destiny, of the importance of leading this university.
It's much fun. It's terribly complicated, and I like complicated things. It has a lot of moving parts, and not all at the same time. It's absolutely fascinating.
We're in the process of going from good to great; this university is really on the move.