High school 'tycoons' learn free enterprise first hand

If you closed your eyes and listened, this could have been just one more routine business conference. Veteran corporate executives praised the Reagan administration's economic policies, but identified problem areas to watch.

John Tipton of Louisville said that the 25 percent tax cut means that "the people are going to be exercising their individual freedom in how they spend this money, giving us a better chance it will be spent well."

But, according to Carol Maier from Minneapolis, "the tax cut could be really inflationary." She called for new incentives for business investment.

Opinions spilled out in a rush because these enthusiastic young executives all needed to catch flights home. Most were headed back to another year of being executive officers in their own corporations.

All of them were heading back to their school books.

They had been attending the 38th annual National Junior Achievers Conference held every August at Indiana University. This year's conference, which ended Aug. 14, brought 3,000 students together. They were selected from the over 210, 000 students taking part each year in an international business-funded program giving 10th to 12th graders practical experience in how business works.

Students become Junior Achievers by signing up for weekly after-school meetings run by local business men and women. Working with materials provided by the nonprofit Junior Achievement Inc. of Stamford, Conn., the students form their own companies, sell stock, and develop and sell a service or manufactured products. At the end of each school year they liquidate their companies to distribute profits or count losses.

Adult volunteers teach students the theory and practice of economics. But the 15- to 17-year-olds run their own business. These "minicompanies" sometimes achieve 25-week gross sales of more than $10,000, with average profits in the 3 to 5 percent range, as for most adult-run corporations.

Along with their corporate responsibilities and regular schoolwork, Junior Achievers face a year-long series of tests and competitions which single out the best locally and regionally, leading to the national conference in Bloomington, Ind.

More tests and interviews with business executives are part of the week in Bloomington. Here, says minicorporation president Greg York from Akron, Ohio, he faced such questions as:

"What are the long-term implications of the government's supply-side programs?"

"How does the CPI (consumer price index)) operate?"

"As Chrysler Corporation president, how would you handle a strike threat by 600 engineers?"

Carol Maier's corporate achievement of a $150 profit on $2,600 in sales for custom-designed T-shirts, Halloween insurance, and stuffed toy seals led directly to a series of tests and interviews on economics, business administration, and current events. She emerged with second place in the Vice-President of Marketing category and selection as Junior Achievement's Outstanding Young Businesswoman of the Year.

Kelley Dixon from Birmingham, Ala., winner of the Public Speaking award, logged company losses of $38 and $96 for her first two years in the corporate whirl. But even the losses which hit some 20 percent of the student companies each year count as learning experiences. Miss Dixon hopes to be a vice-president of finance this year, and to turn a profit.

Past losses certainly haven't dented Kelley's enthusiasm for the free enterprise system, which she describes as the "the freedom for private business to organize and operate for a profit in a competitive system without interference from the government beyond the requirements necessary to protect the public interest."

For minicompany president Thomas Kushner from New York City, one high point of Junior Achievement is trading ideas with top business executives. After a number of seminar groups at the Bloomington conference, he commented: "So what if they are making $1.5 million. The important thing is that we can talk with them and respect them as people. And we find out that their businesses are just the same as ours, except their sales are in the billions, ours are in the hundreds."

With its high-school companies program, classroom programs for younger students, and economics programs for college students and adults, Junior Achievement's goal is to increase the nation's economic literacy.

But the young Junior Achievers are determined to have a two-way exchange, which is just what Nalco Chemical Company chairman Robert T. Powers says he's found when attending the Bloomington conferences as one of over 300 top adult executives.

Much of the Bloomington experience centers on preparing the students for entering the business world. The message is that they are headed into a competitive environment which demands as well as offers a great deal.

So the conference sounded in many ways like any other business conference, until the tearful closing speeches from outgoing conference officers. William Herp almost left the podium after giving the typical businessman's advice to "Press on to the top." But then this young man planning a career in corporate accounting bent back over his microphone and told the 3,000 delegates, "I love you."

The Junior Achievers instantly responded, "We love you, too, Bill."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.