A businessman-philosopher contemplates the future of AT&T; Heritage & Destiny: Reflections on the Bell System in Transition, by Alvin von Auw. New York: Praeger. 480 pp. $25.
There are not many books written by businessmen-philosophers. Perhaps that's because there aren't many individuals who combine the decisive pragmatism required by corporate executives and the reflective abilities needed by philosophers.
''Heritage & Destiny'' is one of the best of these books. It was written by a member of the innermost circle of senior management of the largest corporation in the world (in terms of assets owned), American Telephone & Telegraph Company. Mr. von Auw was assistant to three board chairmen at Ma Bell from 1969 through 1981.
The book is published at an appropriate time. AT&T has just undergone what the author describes as ''surely the most drastic discontinuity in the history of any major US industry, divestiture of an $80 billion business.'' The utility core has separated from its regional telephone operating companies, keeping for itself the long-distance business, manufacturing facilities (Western Electric), and Bell Laboratories (its famous research facility).
Looking ahead, Mr. von Auw asks whether AT&T will survive this transition and renew itself, or go the way of the dinosaurs. He also explores whether a company moving from a regulated monopoly business (local telephone communications) to a highly competitive enterprise (selling telephone and other communications equipment and providing long-distance service) can maintain the deeply ingrained service philosophy of the Bell System.
With the constant talk about the ''bottom line'' in American business circles , the cynic may doubt that any company will put service above profits, as Mr. von Auw claims. After all, it could be added, this Bell System executive had previously served his company as its top public relations official, which, this book would indicate, helped polish his own writing skills as well as his company's image.
AT&T executives never deny the need for enough company profit to allow the company to perform its communications function. But their sincerity about service rings through their memorandums, speeches, and other documents that are quoted extensively in this book. Moreover, in two decades of covering business news, including many talks with telephone company people, this reviewer has been left with the impression of a firm that takes its public duties seriously.
There's good reason for that beyond simple altruism. In most nations, the telephone system is run directly by the government or by a state-owned company. AT&T has remained a stockholder-owned company. Bell executives know that, if they abused their responsibilities, the company could end up nationalized.
In effect, Mr. von Auw asks a question: Will AT&T better serve American citizens now that it faces the risks - and perhaps, the rewards - of operating in a competitive business environment? The Department of Justice, which brought the antitrust suit against Bell, and the judge who approved the Jan. 8, 1982, settlement apparently believe the ''invisible hand'' of competition will force AT&T to serve the public well.
The author hopes, but doesn't sound fully convinced, that the company and its ex-affiliates will continue their tradition of more than 100 years of service.
''. . . (It) makes a great deal of difference,'' he notes, ''whether the managers of the enterprise consider themselves, as tradition would have them consider themselves, stewards of a public trust, accountable for the delivery of one of society's most vital services, or whether they see themselves as the managers of a portfolio whose first responsibility is to position the business in whatever markets will profit it most, however far afield those markets might be from traditional notions of what 'our business' is.''
Today's Bell System managers, he adds, are in a position to exert a profound influence on the future of this great enterprise with its more than 1 million employees and operating revenues in excess of $60 billion.
Their decisions will determine if the businesses that made up the Bell System will be ''merely businesses or whether . . . they will be enterprises of historical significance,'' making the ''highest and best use'' of the company's immense and unique resources.
Whatever the case, AT&T is no longer the nation's largest company. Oddly enough, the decision to break up the telephone company came at a time when there was no evidence of urgent public concern about its size. Populist agitation over ''undue concentrations of economic power'' was at its lowest ebb in decades, notes Mr. von Auw. ''To all appearances the public over the years had come to understand that large scale technologically oriented undertakings require large scale aggregations of capital and comprehensive planning.''
That doesn't mean the surviving AT&T, minus its regional operating companies, will be small potatoes. After all, its long-distance revenues alone accounted for more than half of the company's gross income before the divestiture.
Mr. von Auw tells the story of the debate within AT&T to ensure its future prosperity amid the growth of new technology and during the groundswell of competition in its business over the last decade.
He does so, but not by recounting year-by-year events in the style of a corporate historian. Rather, he deals with corporate issues, many of them questions of business philosophy.
For instance, he looks at the age-old question of regulation vs. freedom. He examines the role of profits and the function of the courts in determining the structure of US business. He also looks at corporate ''culture,'' corporate planning and deci-sionmaking, public accountability, economists who advocate competition, annual reports, and so on.
It is a tour de force of corporate matters by an exceptionally thoughtful analyst and former insider.
It should be compulsory reading for telephone company managers, of interest to corporate executives in general, but probably too long a read for most ordinary citizens.
Nor will John Q. Public find an answer to his bottom-line question: Will the breakup of AT&T mean cheaper and better telephone service or not? Mr. von Auw doesn't really hazard a guess.