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Cinema and the C-suite: Leadership lessons from Other People’s Money

An early ’90s comedy–drama, set in the heyday of corporate raiders, offers a nuanced view of stakeholder capitalism.

Group of business people in a meeting reviewing financial documents with a piggy bank sitting on top

Firms have all kinds of stakeholders, and they’re all supposed to matter. But companies naturally tend to focus on their employees. The people who work in a company embody the place. They’re the ones you see every day, and they’re the ones you’re trying to motivate. Of course, no stakeholder is more important than the boss.

The problem is that the boss typically isn’t the one who owns the joint. In the history of business, there is no better—or more deceptively breezy—exposition of this age-old conflict between agents and owners than the 1991 film Other People’s Money, based on Jerry Sterner’s witty play of the same name. It won’t make you forget Peter Drucker or Tom Peters or even Karl Marx. But it will make you remember Larry the Liquidator. And you will enjoy every minute of it.

Larry (full name, Lawrence Garfield) is a corporate raider who wakes up one morning to discover a tempting target on his screen: New England Wire and Cable, a venerable industrial concern with loyal employees, no debt, and persistent losses. Battered by imports and sustained only by its subsidiaries, the enterprise is worth more dead than alive, its stock down more than 80% from its position a decade earlier.

Played with delicious irreverence—and flawless sensitivity—by Danny DeVito, Garfield intends to buy up the depressed stock and unlock the value in the land holdings and other assets by selling them off, even if it wipes out all the jobs at the cable-and-wire division. But Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson (Gregory Peck), the son of the founder, still runs the place, and he has a lot of old-fashioned ideas about community and continuity and commitment. “You can’t come into my town, my plant, take my company,” he thunders when Larry turns up in his limousine. “You can’t do that.”

Determined to fend off this barbarian at the factory gates, Jorgy turn to his stepdaughter, a sharp young lawyer named Kate Sullivan (Penelope Ann Miller). This is a movie, not a learned treatise about the agency problem, so naturally there is romance afoot. Larry has already regaled us with his love of money, but we begin to see, right along with Kate, that there is a great deal more to the barbarian than mere greed. Unsentimental about business, this hard-nosed son of the Bronx is a romantic about life, an excruciatingly earnest violinist, and an idealist about capitalism. When Kate’s mother tries to buy him off with her million-dollar trust fund, he tells her in all seriousness, “I don’t take money from widows or orphans. I make them money.”

What Larry really wants is love, but his quest to take over and dismantle New England Wire and Cable threatens his hopes of finding happiness with Kate—who, like everyone else, underestimates him. When she takes him to a Japanese restaurant, she switches languages and conspires mischievously with the waitress while he plays the fool. But when Kate has to run, he drops the act and addresses their server in Japanese.

Larry’s devotion to his appetites—his love of donuts and cigarettes—and his Mephistophelian pursuit of profit tend to obscure something old-fashioned about him that can only be described as a vocation. The movie’s title—OPM even appears on the license plate of Garfield’s limo—points us to the moral basis of his calling. It’s not so much that he covets other people’s money. Rather, he seems to be the only one who understands that it is theirs. Those who would use this capital in business have a sacred obligation to its owners—an obligation all too easy to forget when the owners are absent and other stakeholders are very much present.

It’s not so much that he covets other people’s money. Rather, he seems to be the only one who understands that it is theirs. Those who would use this capital in business have a sacred obligation to its owners.

Larry’s parallel quests, to win New England Wire on the one hand and to win Kate on the other, each result in tender offers, though Larry the Liquidator isn’t always as tender as either counterpart might prefer. Like some allegorical figure of death in a bespoke suit, he has a job to do, and that is to put things out of their misery, freeing up their molecules to recombine elsewhere in ways that will sustain the vitality of the universe.

For this and other reasons, Larry is hardly the sort of swain Kate normally seems to date, but the two of them recognize qualities in each other—childhood hurts, grown-up ambitions, a love of luxury—that are a source of plausible magnetism, and when Jorgy suggests a proxy vote, she manages to get Larry to go along. His confident indulgence of this request is the basis for the movie’s brilliant denouement.

The vote occurs at the company’s annual meeting, at its Rhode Island headquarters, where first Jorgy and then Larry address the assembled shareholders. Jorgenson, in his righteous anger at the depredations of financial capitalism, pulls no punches. He accuses the visiting tycoon of “playing God with other people’s money. The robber barons of old at least left something tangible in their wake—a coal mine, a railroad, banks. This man leaves nothing. He creates nothing. He builds nothing. He runs nothing. And in his wake lies nothing but a blizzard of paper to cover the pain.”

It is a devastating harangue, delivered in prophetic style by someone who has poured body and soul into an enterprise (admittedly, one founded by his father). But Larry’s response, a tour de force for both DeVito and the capitalism his character rises to defend, is equal to the occasion. He begins by saying “Amen,” explaining that “where I come from, you always say ‘amen’ after you hear a prayer. Because that’s what you just heard—a prayer. Where I come from, that particular prayer is called ‘The Prayer for the Dead.’”

Each of the speeches is completely convincing, and that’s one reason this is such a great movie. You’ll have to decide for yourself which of the speakers has justice on his side. I won’t tell you who wins the shareholder vote, either. Other People’s Money may be the greatest movie ever made about business. Thanks to Jorgy and Larry, both, nearly everyone can afford to watch it.

Daniel Akst

Daniel Akst is a business writer, author, and novelist based in New York’s Hudson Valley. His books include Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess.

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