REDEFINING CORPORATE CULTURE

Memphis lawyer Arnold Perl on the shift from ‘workers’ to ‘human resources’

Published in 2012 Mid-South Super Lawyers — December 2012

Q: Were there any early influences that shaped your career?

A: Debating changed my life. In undergraduate school, I was very involved with intercollegiate debating as president of the University of Illinois Forensic Association. It made me much more critical about words and phrases and the use of language and rhetoric in public debate, and helped me develop independent and critical thinking skills. I’ll forever be grateful to those at the University of Illinois who gave me that opportunity.

 

Q: Did you ever consider a different career path?

A: I was going to go to graduate school at Indiana University, get a degree in rhetoric and public address, and be an assistant debate coach, but in my senior year I had a class in labor law taught by Robben Fleming. Robben ultimately went on to become provost at the University of Wisconsin and, finally, president of the University of Michigan. As we got near the end of the class, I asked Robben, “I want to do this; how do I do it?” Back then, the National Labor Relations Board was such a great entry into the field; this was 1962 to ’63. He arranged for me to have an interview with the NLRB office in Chicago. The focus wasn’t so much on grades—I was on the law review at law school, so that probably wasn’t an issue—but they sat and talked about the statute and why the NLRB came into existence and what its mission was and about helping people, all kinds of people, and that this was something that required a commitment. I was very taken with the challenge of doing that after being in school for so many years.

 

Q: What was it about labor law that captured your interest?

A: It really goes to people. It focuses on the workplace and people’s livelihood. It involves management, it involves unions, it involves companies; it’s the whole gamut. Professor Fleming was serving as an arbitrator back then and doing a lot of high-profile arbitrations and mediations for the administration in Washington. He’d come back and talk about this, and it was fascinating [to hear] about the issues that came up in the workplace.

 

Q: What was it like working for the NLRB?

A: The NLRB does basically two things. They resolve questions of representation: whether or not the employees choose to select or not select a labor organization. … The other one is to investigate unfair labor-practice charges filed by employees, unions or sometimes companies, and where they find merit in the charges, to prosecute those charges. I did both of those things: held elections in the workplace at different sites in Memphis when I first was there. I also tried cases where the NLRB had issued a complaint against a particular company or union.

My first assignment was with the Memphis regional law office of the NLRB. I was here from 1963 to 1965, and then I was reassigned to headquarters in Washington, D.C. Before I left I was in the appellate court branch of the NLRB’s enforcement division, where I worked on briefs and did oral arguments on behalf of the NLRB and the United States Courts of Appeals. Then I left and accepted a position with McDermott Will & Emery, one of the really large firms in Chicago at the time. While I loved the firm and enjoyed the practice there very much—stimulating and great clients … I wanted to live in the South. My wife [and I] decided that we’d go to Memphis. That was in 1969. I’ve been here ever since.

 

Q: So no regrets over leaving Chicago?

A: I’ve been very fortunate to have been engaged here in Memphis as chairman of the [Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority] for the last 15 years, as chairman of the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority that built the FedEx Forum, and secretary and counsel for the [Greater Memphis] Chamber, and founder and first chairman of the Japan-America Society [of Tennessee] and the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees. I’ve been blessed with these opportunities, and I think that, had I remained in Chicago, it is unlikely that I would have had this span of activities, this breadth of life. I would have, hopefully, been a successful partner and maybe I would have been on the school board in a big city, but in Memphis, a mid-sized city … there are opportunities for extending your work as a lawyer and carrying through to these other endeavors which ultimately help define the city’s future. … Memphis is a relationship city. When you get to the real big cities, yeah, the connectivity of leaders is important, but those relationships don’t necessarily drive a city’s destiny. Here in Memphis, that connectivity helps shape the future of the city.

 

Q: Why the switch from government to private practice?

A: I wanted to be out in private practice, taking the benefit of the experience that I had and carrying it forward to benefit management. … It was exciting for me to see the challenges that management had and [to] feel like I could add something. … When management succeeds, it helps all concerned, including the employees as well as the communities where they’re located. So it was not a big leap to get involved in community leadership positions.

 

Q: Tell me about being awarded the Order of the Rising Sun in 2007.

A: It was an awesome honor. I was flabbergasted, frankly, because it is the second highest civilian award conferred by the government of Japan.

 

Q: How did you earn this?

A: I think it was because of my, as was explained to me, dedication and commitment to the cultural ties between Japan and Tennessee in the areas of business, trade, cultural activities and personal relationships that the emperor saw fit to confer upon me the Order of the Rising Sun. …  When Don Sundquist, before he was governor, was Congressman Sundquist, he asked me if I would be interested in getting involved with the Japan-U.S. Southeast Association. Seven southeastern states met annually with Japan’s government and business leadership. … I was in awe about what I saw and experienced. I maintained my involvement in that, and that led to—when Congressman Sundquist became governor—founding the Japan-America Society of Tennessee. I served as the founder and first chairman at the governor’s request.

 

Q: Tell me about the 2006 book you co-authored, Simple Solutions: Harness the Power of Passion and Simplicity to Get Results.

A: I had just completed serving as chairman of the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority. In Memphis, public building projects, which this was, have always come in wildly late and wildly over budget, but we built what some regard as the finest NBA arena in the country. It was the first public building project in the history of Memphis to be built on time, on budget. ... The mission was “Build it Right,” and the number one core value was not “on time, on budget.” The number one core value was “assemble the best team.” … I was at a retreat for the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, and the FedEx representative at the retreat back then was Tom Schmitt. He said, “Arnold, after what you guys did on the FedEx Forum project, you should write a book about it.” I said, “I’ve never written a book before,” and Tom said … “Well, I haven’t either, but we could do it together.”

 

Q: Having been on both sides of the courtroom, do you believe there is a place for unions?

A: Unions fill a void where there’s not mutual respect and trust. When I began my career with the NLRB, unions represented roughly one out of every three, quote, workers. One out of every three. Today in the private sector, it’s 6.9 percent. So what has changed? Well, a number of things have changed. Today there are significant government regulations that govern the workplace that didn’t exist back then: EEOC, OSHA, ADA, FEMLA—all the “alphabets” protect employees in the workplace. So that’s one sea change. A big sea change, though, was the realization that for companies to be globally competitive, they had to view people as human resources and create a culture of human resources. The principal reason for the unions’ decline in the private sector is the positive workplace culture established by companies empowering employees and truly having them function as human resources. A culture of respect and dignity. A culture of collaboration, working together, that we’re all in this together, and not have these different strata that some people are worth more than others. Where you have that kind of culture, you make unions unnecessary, but if the culture is totally different, where people are being abused and not treated fairly, not being paid competitively and not being valued, unions are going to fill that void. … Today, we [as management] look upon people as human resources who can make an organization globally competitive. That’s the challenge: to have people become human resources.

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