George Myles Cordell Fisher is in a hurry. He has just 10 minutes for an interview before rushing to catch a plane; his morning has been spent on an Eastman Kodak case for a strategy class, taught by Assistant Professor Giovanni Gavetti. I ask him the most obvious question: what does someone who has been CEO of Motorola and Eastman Kodak do for an encore? How does he stay challenged?
“My driving force in life is learning,” says Fisher. “Boredom is my enemy.” He likely doesn’t have to worry. The General Motors, Eli Lilly and PanAmSat boards and a portfolio of companies at Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) where he is senior advisor keep him fresh. Educated as an engineer and mathematician and the holder of several patents, Fisher appears to relish the pressure, whether it is learning about pharmaceuticals or dissecting the strategic issues of the auto industry, or figuring out how to take a satellite company public. But he particularly loves his role at KKR, where the companies are from a wide cross section of industries. “I could spend all of my time on [that portfolio].”
Fisher also is passionately interested in China, having pushed Eastman Kodak’s interests there in the 1990’s with the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. “China is one of my greatest interests in life,” he enthuses. By necessity his companies all have some type of operations in China. When Fisher was running Motorola they considered launching satellites for a space-based mobile phone network from China; he is also knowledgeable about its space capabilities from a stint on the Hughes board.
If he’s not traveling, Fisher is up and working out at 5:30am. He reads four papers (one local, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today) and ploughs through paperwork. Afternoons are “unpredictable” but always include a four mile speed walk with his wife.
I ask him how he would describe corporate governance in the wake of accounting scandals, prison sentences, and reform legislation. Has the congeniality gone away?
Fisher says boards have gotten more, not less, congenial; after Sarbanes-Oxley there is a sense that “we’re all in this together.” However, he points out that CEOs have become much more accustomed to being challenged and don’t take offense as easily as they once might have.
Recruiting board members is definitely getting tougher, “not so much for the General Motors of the world, but I’ve heard of many companies having that difficulty. It used to be that the average CEO board member was on two boards; that has dropped to .9. The ideal board member is an acting CEO, but today most don’t have time for more than one board… There is an infinite supply of people who want to be board members, just not as many who are CEOs.”
I point out that perhaps retired CEOs, like himself, represent the best of both worlds. “Someone who is retired is definitely a second choice,” says Fisher. “You really want someone who is in the thick of the current business world.” I point out that, given the boards he is on, he is in the thick of the current business world. “Yes, but being on a board is a different experience than running a company.” I give up.