Passion in a dark room

My men’s group gathered at a house on Lake Hartwell for golf, boating, eating and levity last weekend, while I was two hours south in Atlanta with a commitment to keep. 

I had an appointment Saturday morning as co-producer and on-camera host of a taping session with Dr. Jagdish Sheth, professor marketing and strategy at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. It was the ninth in a series of archival tapes to record the thoughts, ideas, insights and observations of one of the most fertile minds in the world of business.

Dr. Sheth has written or co-written dozens of books, been on the boards of Fortune 500 companies and advises the governments of China and India as they re-tool their industries and become powerful players in the global economy.

He is on the road so much it’s a wonder he has time to teach, not to mention maintain a business called In-Core and a newly minted India, China and America Institute. He also endows a speaker series at Emory which recently brought director Mira Nair to the campus.

But what I was reminded of when the taping began in a dark room strewn with wires, lights and packing cases is that these sessions are, first and foremost, an expression of one man’s’ lifelong passion, a passion that after 68 years shows no signs of abating.

After a taping last September he said, "I can’t see an end to this…."

The title of the series is "Trends in Marketing," which might have you reaching for the No Doz if you haven’t heard the man speak. In our very first session two years ago, we taped 5 1/2 hours of material as Dr. Sheth explained how marketing was changing to reflect shifts in demographics, technology, competition, globalization and public policy.

What promised to be a day of unmitigated tedium proved, in fact, to be a fascinating adventure in commercial anthropology. It was, in essence, a review of the past 40 years as told through a succession of commercial products, from Campbell’s Soup and Hai Karate after-shave to the Hula Hoop and Ford Mustang.

Dr. Sheth discussed the decline of the middle class, the influence of climate on commerce, the Europeanization of America and threw in, as well, such random factoids as: Americans now consume more salsa than ketchup.

There were four of us in the room that day – the cameraman/co-producer, the sound man, a teleprompter operator and myself – and we were shaking our heads in amazement. It was a tour de force.

Dr. Sheth has given thousands of speeches – I was revising a bio for him once and he said, "I’ve given more than 5,000 speeches, but nobody would believe it, so let’s say ‘hundreds’" – and is a flawless speaker. We rarely stop because he’s made a mistake; more often a truck starts up outside or door slams or a helicopter lands at Emory’s hospital.

Saturday, shooting the first half of "The Seven Bad Habits of Good Companies" — a book of the same title is forthcoming in September –he deconstructed the Digital Corporation, General Motors, Air India, Xerox and IBM. The bad habits:  denial, arrogance, complacency, dependence, myopia, obsession and turf wars.

His ability to stand in front of a camera and extemporize, using only Power Point slides and his prodigious memory to draw from business, psychology, popular culture, history and politics is reminiscent of another powerful Indian-American speaker, Deepak Chopra.

Unlike Chopra, however, he exudes a warmth and guilelessnes that evokes protectiveness in those around him. (In fairness, it’s quite likely that celebrity has forced Chopra — with whom I’ve spoken on the phone and in person — into a shell.)

Jag, as friends call him, stands a few inches over five feet tall, and has large dark eyes and black hair flecked with gray. He is a lifelong vegetarian and follower of Jainism, a form of Hinduism that rejects the idea of God but espouses a deep respect for all living things.

If he has a flaw, it is that he keeps a schedule that would fatigue two men half his age. And if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then he must be a good father, too: his daughter, Reshma Shah, is also a business professor at Emory.

It is intriguing to imagine Dr. Sheth among the titans of commerce, dwarfed by them physically and perhaps by their egos, and yet his self-assurance and professional mastery bespeak a man who meets everyone at eye level.

Saturday was no day at the lake, but I couldn’t have picked a better place to be.  

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