Business ethics has quickly gained popular attention around the nation following such infamous events as the bankruptcies of Enron and WorldCom and the related problems at auditing titan Arthur Andersen. In his address Saturday morning in Gaston Hall, Chairman and CEO of ConAgra Foods Bruce Rohde spoke on ethics and how the business community must address these changes in the current environment. He paid particular attention to the effects of risk and trust on the economy.

Rohde opened his speech by discussing the difficult state of the economy the business world is just starting to come to terms with. He contrasted the current economic uncertainty to the perceived safety of the 1990s economic boom, when technology led the world to significant and reliable economic growth and created an overwhelming optimism about the future – an optimism that has ended, at least for now.

He said that people had thought the old economy went out the door, but then attacks on American homeland and a devastating stock market crash brought that tumbling down.

Gaston Hall was crowded with parents and families on campus for the McDonough School of Business Parent’s Weekend. This speech, the keynote address of the weekend events, followed a series of lectures by MSB faculty on varied topics such as investment management, deceptive financial statements and “Enron-itis.”

A committee with significant student participation named Rohde the MSB Business Leader of the Year by. David Gold (MSB ’04), co-chair of the Business Day Committee, introduced the award and spoke of its former recipients including leaders from Proctor and Gamble, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines and the World Bank. MSB Dean John Mayo, in his eighth week of holding the position, presented the award to Rohde.

Though Enron may have made people look more dubiously upon the money raked in by American firms, Rohde said that “society gets what society rewards,” explaining that business merely acts as a barometer for general trends in society. A business financial crisis might attract more attention because it’s highly measurable and affects Americans in very tangible ways, but the same forces are at work that cause professional athletes to pump their veins with steroids and politicians to win elections amid immense controversy, Rohde said. He also stressed that students entering the “battlefield we call business” must “trust [their] instincts” to avoid making the same sort of ethically compromising decisions as business leaders of the recent past.

Without trust in the economic system, and the ability to trust, business will suffer and the risks of participation will increase Rohde said. Trust is “the oil that keeps the economic engines running,” and laws cannot create trust, he added. Echoing the words of former Arthur Andersen CEO Joe Berardino in a speech given on campus Oct. 21, Rohde explained that regulation would not solve today’s business crisis – only principles and actions could, for “actions speak louder than words,” according to Rohde.

Rohde’s firm, ConAgra Foods, produces food brands such as Butterball, Swiss Miss, Reddi-whip, Healthy Choice and others. He commented only on the particular position of his company during question and answer. The audience probed Rodhe’s thoughts on topics related to agriculture and food during this short period after the speech.

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