The value of looking back

Quick quiz: When was your firm founded? It's a softball. You shouldn't have to be an officer with a glossy portrait in the annual report to know the answer.

But how did the first leaders set the company apart? What was the prevailing business climate? What was the mission - has it changed?

If you have to grope for details, you may be forgiven. Some firms keep their histories right up front. Family firms, in particular, like to dust off anecdotes for marketing purposes. But it's much harder today than in decades past to find a firm with an uncomplicated lineage.

Blame, in part, waves of buyouts and mergers - and all of the spinoffs recast and renamed to ride new technology into new industries.

Still, there may be good reason for employees at all levels to get the story right - and help those who succeed them keep it straight.

Staying true to the founder may have helped Arthur Andersen, the 88-year-old accounting firm that wound up entangled with Enron in a very sorry-looking free-fall.

Andersen's namesake demanded "absolute honesty and probity from employees and clients alike," a Los Angeles Times story reported early this year. "[Mr. Andersen] wouldn't put up with anything that wasn't complete, 100 percent integrity," the story quoted a retiree as saying.

Not that lore has to hand out only ominous lessons. I spent one summer just after college in a chilly room, laying acid-free paper between letters received by Erwin Canham, an esteemed and longtime editor of this newspaper.

Among all the expected staid missives from political giants of the era: a friendly note from Groucho Marx. For me, at square one of a career, it said something about the breadth of the man's network.

A little bit of lore to tuck away.

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