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Kenneth Mason, a maverick “advertising boy wonder” who lived in Deer Isle for years after abruptly quitting as president and CEO of Quaker Oats to rail against corporations’ “profits-are-everything philosophy,” died earlier this month.
An intellectual who went from Yale University into the advertising business after serving as a U.S. Army intelligence officer in World War II, the 97-year-old died Sept. 4, according to his obituary.
Mason is perhaps best known for rising to the post of president of Quaker Oats — then one of America’s largest companies — in 1976 at age 54, then leaving the position three years later with a sharply critical view of American business.
In Business Week, Mason wrote, “the business ‘profits-are-everything philosophy’ is a dreary and demeaning view of the role of business and business leaders in our society.”
“Making a profit is no more the purpose of a corporation than getting enough to eat is the purpose of life. Getting enough to eat is a requirement of life; life’s purpose, one would hope, is somewhat broader and more challenging,” he added.
A charismatic speaker, Mason had a sharp wit and roving mind. He liked to quote poems and vast passages of Shakespeare and Chaucer, and mated his business pursuits with more community-minded endeavors whenever he could.
Born March 2, 1922, in Asheville, North Carolina, he graduated from the Asheville School for Boys in 1939, and from Yale University in 1943. His fluency in French and intellect likely helped him in his service with the Sixth Armored Division in France, where he earned the Bronze Star in 1945 for his apprehension of the killer of a military policeman.
Mason published stories in Women’s Day, Chicago Magazine and many others during the war before returning to the U.S. and beginning a prominent career as an advertising executive in Chicago and Los Angeles. Mason joined the Quaker Oats Co. as advertising director in 1962, then became group vice president for U.S. Grocery Products and a member of the board of directors in 1968. In 1974 he became executive vice president in charge of Quaker’s worldwide grocery business before becoming president and CEO two years later.
His life included sojourns in the documentary arts where he was a passionate critic of aspects of his own business — the effects of television and advertising on children preoccupied him. During his time at Quaker Oats, he helped produce several children’s programs and films, including “Say Goodbye,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1971.
He became a controversial figure in the business world when he scoffed at economist Milton Friedman’s claim in The New York Times Magazine in 1970 that businesses cannot serve social good because to do so means using other people’s money — from investors, customers and employees — in ways that those individuals would not necessarily condone.
Government and charities had as their aim the use of funds for the common good, not businesses, Friedman said.
Mason argued that Americans should “encourage, not evade, discussion of those problems that arise when the activities of business conflict with the needs and concerns of society.”
The “moral imperative” for businesses was to get “the best return we can on whatever assets we are privileged to employ,” he argued. Those assets were not just financial assets, “but also the brains employed, the labor employed, the materials employed, and the land, air, and water employed,” he said.
By the late 1970s, Mason and his wife of 56 years, Cherie, left the corporate world to move to Pine Island, Minnesota, to pursue more contemplative aims.
At the time, he told The New York Times, “I’m a very old 57. I’ve felt for many years that I would like to reserve a percentage of my years to do some thinking about the world and business and social problems. I’m not retiring that much earlier than people who retire at 62. I’m just beating them by five years.”
A fire that destroyed their Pine Island home compelled the couple’s move to Deer Isle, where Mason continued writing. In the fall of 1992 his short story, “The Adulterers,” was published in The Iowa Review and in 1995 it was selected to be part of its 25th anniversary retrospective anthology.
Besides his wife, Mason is survived by his daughter Shelley.