In Business Selling Salvation

One of the most memorable encounters of my reporting life occurred some ten years ago when I went to the cosy college town of Claremont snuggling under the San Gabriel mountains to the east of greater Los Angeles.

I was there to listen to the management thinker and writer Professor Peter Drucker (he hated the word "guru").

Peter Drucker died in 2005, but his ideas live on ... indeed the 100th anniversary of his birth a month or two ago was commemorated by no less an offering than a special issue of the Harvard Business Review with the striking question on the cover: "What Would Peter Say?" in these turbulent times.

Arranging the encounter was itself a notable experience. Peter Drucker had no secretary and his wife (one year older than himself) had the year I met him just started a new business.

So the arrangements across many time zones were conducted by an exchange of personal and precise fax machine letters which I think I still have: the precise hotel to stay at in Claremont and how to get to his rather modest house, details he scribbled on the bottom of the letters we had sent to him and faxed back.

As thus directed we arrived, sat down, and started talking, in a much lived-in front room with shelves full of delicious old 33rpm discs of chamber music.


Peter Drucker was rather deaf so there were certain misunderstandings, but the conversation spanned the world, illuminated by dazzling detail.

His wife had been the first market researcher for Marks and Spencer in the 1930s, he said, and he knew the famous British store chain inside out.

He had been in at the start of Britain's welfare state; the architect of the National Health Service and much else, Sir William Beveridge had been a friend and they discussed his radical ideas in the 1940s as they were being mapped out.

We talked about knowledge organisations, Drucker's speciality (well, he invented the term knowledge worker) and about the ageing world which is now rushing upon us. "The last Italian will die in about 2050," he predicted with a wicked grin.

I mentioned an encounter I had had the previous year with another American icon, the architect of management consultancy Marvin Bower of McKinsey (it was his only broadcast interview, also in his late 80s, and he is now also dead).

When I asked Marvin Bower what his main regret was in 60 years of advising the top people in first American and then global business, he did not hesitate in his reply: "The prevalence of command and control," he said.


When I put the same question to Peter Drucker, his answer was immediate: "I heartily agree with my friend Marvin Bower," he said. A one-line answer that addressed the abiding problem of most organisations then and now.

Over lunch in his favourite Italian restaurant, Professor Drucker talked about his abiding fascination in healthcare operations, and non profit organisations, and how they work. It was a special interest; he had had a lot of medical men in his family in Europe.

On quite another occasion, he wrote something which remains stuck in my mind. "The most effective organisation in America," said Peter Drucker,"is the Salvation Army."

Not the most effective NGO, or not-for- profit ... the most effective organisation or business, anywhere, full stop.

What, you ask, the Salvationists, with their uniforms and their bands, ringing their Christmas Appeal bells all along the Main Streets in the USA ? With their faith, and their old-fashioned attitudes and their street-level identification with poverty and deprivation in a secularizing world?

Peter Drucker's assessment was and is a striking one, and it suggests something else even larger.

If a 144-year-old faith-based organisation is really so effective at raising and using money from the public, might its unwavering commitment to get things done here on earth not have very big lessons for all the places and businesses where most people work, and do it seemingly far less effectively?

Listen to Selling Salvation (24/12/2009)

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.