Monday, July 20, 2009

Ray Shaw´s voice is in my head

The Chairman of American City Business Journals died Sunday at 75 after complications from a sting by a wasp..

Ray Shaw was the boss where I worked for 17 years, and I still hear his voice in my head, asking pointed questions and insisting that I give evidence to justify opinions.

High expectations

He was a reporter and editor before becoming a businessman, and he had a journalistic style. He expected his publishers to know everything that was going on at their papers.

"How do you know that?" he would ask. "Why are you tolerating that behavior?" "Do you know what your salespeople are doing?" "How many sales calls have you gone on in the past week?" "I´m looking at your bad debt ratio in the controller´s report: Do you know what it is?" Or the always scary comment, "I don´t like what I´m hearing."

A great teacher

He probably wouldn´t have described himself as a mentor. That was a little too squishy for him. He was more like a demanding teacher or coach. He paid you the compliment of always expecting your best, so you accomplished more than you might have thought possible.

He could be intimidating, and many feared him, but the fear passed if you got to know him. This story from the Charlotte Business Journal in particular captured the man:

On a somber Monday morning in January of 2007, Washington Business Journal publisher Alex Orfinger picked up the phone and called his boss, American City Business Journals Chairman Ray Shaw, with a piece of devastating news.

John McCalla, the paper’s 38-year-old editor, had just been found dead, the unexpected victim of heart disease.

Orfinger spoke to Shaw, who was at company headquarters in Charlotte, at 9:30 a.m. Four hours later, Shaw was walking the halls of the Washington Business Journal, offering encouragement and comfort to the shellshocked staff.

“It left an indelible mark,” Orfinger says. “Nobody ever forgot that.”

(The complete article, republished in Portfolio, is here.)

Ray came to Columbus in 1993, where I was editor of the business journal, to give me an award for editorial excellence. It´s hanging above my desk here in Guadalajara.

Before retiring three years ago, I was one of the publishers of the 40 weekly business newspapers in the group. About 15 of us had dinner after the funeral and went around the table describing our favorite Ray moments. A common theme: dumb things we said.

My dumb remark

Ray called one time to let me know how much he disliked a particular article in our paper. Without thinking, I said, "Ray, you´re the only person who's complained to me about that." Not the brightest reply to someone who was the most demanding reader of your newspaper.

When I told him three years ago that I was retiring to pursue an ambition of living and working in a foreign country, he said, "I understand that completely. I felt the same way when I left Dow Jones." He also had retired at 55 to go in a new direction.

Then a few weeks after that conversation I landed in the hospital with a mysterious abdominal ailment (probably stress). He called me there on a Saturday to see how I was doing and to give me a little advice. I can hear him yet.

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