A career of service Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

“No man is an island, entire of itself.”

Since John Donne dropped that philosophical bombshell in 1623, everyone from Thomas Merton to Earnest Hemingway has shared an interpretation. The thread tying each is simple: We are all intrinsically connected, insomuch as the fate of another is tied to your own. It is how we live with that understanding where those interpretations deviate. Today, Sam Miller applies his own interpretation of Donne’s musing as the co-chairman of the board and treasurer at Forest City Enterprises Inc.

“No company is ever an island unto itself,” he says, adding that the success of a business is intrinsically tied to the well-being of those who surround it.

The surrounding parties of which he speaks are not Forest City’s shareholders, vendors or employees. While those groups are as important to the success of the business as any, he is instead speaking of the greater community at large.

Since joining the real estate firm in 1947, Miller’s involvement with that populace has been extensive. He serves on the board of trustees of countless organizations, including TV station WVIZ, Urban League, Baldwin-Wallace College, Crime Stoppers, Police Memorial, Medical Mutual of Ohio, Cleveland State University, the Jewish National Fund and the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

If those last two entries seem slightly incongruous, further confusion might arise when considering the following: Miller is both a nationally recognized leader in the Jewish community and also one of the largest non-Catholic supporters of Catholic education in the country.

Such involvement is not intended to test the boundaries of religious affiliation. Miller says that service should extend to all people. No man or company is an island surrounded by a sea of constraining beliefs. If we are all truly connected, as Donne suggested, then service should extend past personal ideology.

Miller also promotes involvement in as many different areas as one can positively contribute to.

“Different elements of the population require different things,” he says.

Focusing solely on a pet cause denies service to a number of equally needy areas.

To emphasize this point, he uses the following example: If a corporation came into a community with a fledgling economy, tax base and school system, it would be ill-advised for that company to devote its services to the local museums or orchestra house. Without first contributing to those base necessities, there would be no one to attend such attractions in the first place.

Miller says when choosing where to get involved, you must first examine the overall climate of the community. Examine what areas need the most help and make your contributions accordingly.

At the same time, you must also take into consideration whether or not to publicize your company’s participation in that service. Community involvement is a surefire way to garner favor from the public. Every executive knows as much. Still, public perception should not be the driving force of service.

“Just to be on a path to self-glorification is wrong,” Miller says. When asked how to decide whether or not to publicize involvement, he suggests to only do so “when it gives credence to the institution that you’re helping.”

In other words, practice selflessness. Community service is intended to do just that — provide service to the community. If it was meant to serve the company, the practice would undoubtedly have a different moniker.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, provide some benefit to the company. Miller is very clear in this regard: “It makes you feel good,” he says.

In addition, community service is a great way to boost morale and contribute to the overall culture of your workplace environment. Again, nearly every executive knows as much. What many might not know is where to draw the line on company involvement.

Miller says that you should never require service from your employees. Forcing them to become active in the community defeats the purpose of voluntary involvement. If a team member chooses to partake, then his or her positive experiences will most certainly lead to greater participation from his or her peers.

That’s the case at Forest City, anyway. Given this positive snowball effect among his employees, Miller rarely initiates such projects on his own anymore. After doing so for 60 years, “Employees get me involved,” he says with a chuckle.

HOW TO REACH: Forest City Enterprises, (216) 621-6060 or www.forestcity.net