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Editorial: In face of apartheid, Cummins stood strong

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THE eulogies that have flowed through international news media over the death of Nelson Mandela have cast a bright light on his role in ending the racist policy of apartheid that had dictated day-to-day living in South Africa for decades.

While the man who had been imprisoned by his own government for 27 years simply because of his opposition to the policy was certainly a major instrument in its eventual dismantling, he was not alone.

Central to the steady erosion of the system in which majority blacks were subjugated to white rule and deprived of basic human rights was the refusal of major international corporations to establish operations in the country. One of the first to take that stance was the then-named Cummins Engine Co., now Cummins Inc.

By the late 1970s, the Columbus-based engine manufacturer held a 20 percent share of the diesel engine market in South Africa, according to the company history “The Engine That Could” by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and David B. Sicilia. That 20 percent share promised to significantly grow after the apartheid regime encouraged the company to build manufacturing facilities in the country.

Initially Cummins executives agreed to the proposal but added a number of stipulations, the major of which was that the company be allowed to do business in the same manner that was being applied elsewhere around the world.

Under that approach, Cummins South Africa would have an integrated work force and supervisors would be of all races. The South African government replied that the condition was unacceptable and if the company maintained that stance, there were competitors in Europe who would be willing to take its place.

Cruikshank and Sicilia quoted then-Cummins Chairman Henry Schacht as saying, “That’s what happened. We lost all the business. Our view was that you don’t need to have all the business in the world. You have certain fundamental principles — and if they can’t be followed, then it’s not business you want.”

Cummins was not the only major corporation to adopt that stance, but there were a number of others — including some Fortune 500 firms — that continued to work within the apartheid system. Eventually the South African government accepted the inevitability of apartheid’s end, bowing to the pressure being applied from within and outside of the country and eventually turning to a system of majority rule.

The stance taken by the Cummins leadership was not a rejection of the free-enterprise system. It was in keeping with a long-standing business philosophy that has come to be its hallmark — to do the right thing.

Under the guidance of its former chairman, the late J. Irwin Miller, the Fortune 500 company has operated on the premise that it is possible to be profitable without violating basic codes of ethics.

That philosophy has been manifest in a number of varied instances.

Cruikshank and Sicilia reported on an incident in 1994 when a Cummins engineer received a package containing partial plans for a new engine then being designed for one of the Columbus company’s major rivals, Caterpillar.

The package and three others sent over the following days were sent by a disgruntled Caterpillar employee. All four were sent back to Caterpillar. Days later Caterpillar’s general counsel sent a letter to his counterparts at Cummins, writing: “I find it gratifying when ethical behavior overshadows the temptation for a competitive edge.”

Judging by the financial success the company has enjoyed, especially in recent years, it is possible to do the right thing and produce profits at the same time.

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