What I learned in four years of interviewing Philly's CEOs

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Jane M. Von Bergen at the finish line after completing the Broad Street Run on May 7, 2017. Now she is at the finish line of her 35-year-career at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com.

No one would ever mistake me for a chief executive — the kind of leader I interviewed in this space for the last four-plus years. I don’t own a power suit, drive a power car, or possess a key skill that most women CEOs sheepishly agree is a must — the ability to wear high heels.

But then, none of those are requisites for being a reporter.

On my last day at the Inquirer, I’m about to do something a little different, which is to interview myself about my experiences interviewing CEOs. Coffee’s here and I propped a mirror near the keyboard to mimic my standard procedure. Next week’s Executive Q&A column is my last.

Run down a couple of chief executives you found notable and say why.

Top of the list would have to be Al Boscov, now deceased. So affable, such a comfortable person to be around, so nice to his department-store employees. Emily Bittenbender, because she has moxie and needs it to be a woman in the construction business. Sharon Dietrich, chief of employment law for Community Legal Services, because she has persistently helped workers, the poor, and the unemployed, not only as a lawyer, but by making contributions at the legislative level in Harrisburg. Inspiring! Same with Barbara Rahke at the Philadelphia Project for Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH), and Donna Torrisi at the Family Practice and Counseling Network.

Donna Allie at TeamClean and Nick Bayer at Saxbys because of their real rags-to-riches stories, plus Bayer has a useful technique for dealing with business cards — he puts them immediately into his contacts, notes where they met and something personal, and immediately sends an email acknowledging the relationship. Mike George at QVC for how he kept track of customer sentiment by tuning into QVC’s 1-800 lines as he drove home from work. ShopRite CEO Jeff Brown at Brown’s SuperStores because he has a million ideas and the Rev. Alyn Waller at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church — same reason. Doug Tieman and Matt Murphy for their honesty — Tieman about his alcoholism and how it informed his work at Caron Treatment Centers, and Murphy about admitting and repairing horrible relationships with Griswold HomeCare’s franchise owners. And the prizewinner on the honesty front? Rick Forman of Forman Mills. This man, who appeared on Undercover CEO, has no filter, so what you get is pure, unvarnished emotion, of all types. I love that!

How were the interviews themselves?

One of my favorites took place in a linen closet with Dr. Alexander Vaccaro at Rothman Institute. The linen closet was the only semi-quiet spot in the whole place and we sat next to the hamper. Many CEOs are so used to talking points that having a real conversation can be a challenge. There’s nothing like having a used sheet tossed by your head to keep it real.

Any interesting personality traits?

Weirdly, some male chief executives like to clean their garages. I couldn’t relate. But then, as I learned more about CEOs, I understood: They can control a clean garage whereas mostly they lead by influence over long periods of time. They are so busy with strategy and “blue sky” views that they rarely have the chance, as I do as a reporter, to feel an immediate sense of accomplishment. And nothing says accomplishment like a neatly coiled garden hose on a hook. Male or female, they like to wake up early and exercise.

What about executive pay? You rarely mentioned that in your column.

Obviously, it’s high, way too high, in many cases. But CEOs do deserve to be very well-paid. Their decisions impact hundreds and thousands of employees. They have a huge responsibility to customers and end-users, as well as the environment and the community. They have very little personal life and their days are scripted to the max — months out. They work across time zones, getting up at 5 a.m. for telephone conferences or wrapping up calls at midnight. The ordinary pleasures of life that we take for granted, a simple Friday night supper at home with a bottle of wine, is a huge deal for them. I remember one CEO telling me he liked to go to Wawa on Saturday morning and just chitchat, as regular people do, without some agenda. That stuck with me.

OK, let’s get to the dirt. Were there any CEOs you actively disliked? C’mon, name names.

I’m not a complete idiot, so no, I’m not naming names. But I can think of two. One leads a manufacturing company moving most of its jobs to Mexico. The CEO was arrogant and Philly is missing those jobs. The other runs a large publicly traded Philadelphia company that employs many low-wage workers. This CEO was hard-pressed to find one nice thing to say about a company truck driver he spent the day with. Most of my CEOs would have had enough personal skills to praise at least one of their employees, especially someone at the bottom of the pay ladder who was the face of the company to customers.

You’ve been at the Inquirer for 35 years and a reporter since you were 10. What will you miss most?

The newsroom atmosphere and the people in it, the people I cover, and the steady dose of exciting and interesting ideas and situations. I’ve really enjoyed writing about labor unions and working people. The hotel workers union in Philadelphia is working on contract language to improve the safety of housekeepers. In Chicago, the union surveyed housekeepers — nearly half said a male guest had exposed himself to them. The hardest thing will be seeing great stories and not having a ready vehicle for writing them.

JANE M. VON BERGEN

Home: Philadelphia, grew up in Allentown.
Diploma: Temple University, secondary education. Editor, Temple News.
Family: I. George Bilyk, husband; sons Joey and Michael Bilyk, 28 and 26; Martha Dahan, sister.
What's next: Looking for new stories, new adventures.