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U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

Speech by SEC Staff:
Reach for the Stars

Remarks by

Lynn E. Turner

Chief Accountant
U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission

Commencement, The College of Business Administration
Central Michigan University
Mount Pleasant, Michigan

May 6, 2000

The Securities and Exchange Commission, as a matter of policy, disclaims responsibility for any private publication or statement by any of its employees. The views expressed herein are those of Mr. Turner and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Commission, the Commissioners, or other members of the Commission's staff.

Thank you President Plachta for that kind introduction. It is indeed an honor to make this commencement address here today. I might note that a speech instructor I once had advised me that a commencement address should always be short. He said:

Be accurate!
Be brief!
And then be seated!

Ladies and gentlemen, I promise you that I shall be as brief as possible – no matter how long it takes me.

First let me congratulate those of you who are receiving your diplomas today. What you have accomplished speaks highly for you, especially those who have taken their education to the graduate level.

And no commencement address should start without thanking the parents and relatives of the graduating class, all of whom provided their support, counsel and money. Without these, the accomplishments that will be recognized today may well not have been achieved.

I also want to thank the faculty, especially my good friend, Professor Tom Weirich, who have prepared these students for the business world. A college president whom I heard in a speech stated: "This is an institution that prepares student for the real world." Before he could continue however, a student hollered out, "It sure does. Right off the bat, I'm in debt $50,000."

So much for one's introduction to the "real world." But let's discuss what life is all about in the real world.

Tom Brokaw, the noted TV anchor, has recently published a book about "The Greatest Generation." This book is about a generation of Americans who grew up during the poverty and despair of the Depression, left the graves of many of their best friends on the foreign battlefields of World War II, and literally started what we call the new economy when they invented the transistor, the computer as well as the first semiconductor companies in what is now know as the silicon valley. Most of us in this room refer to them as parents and grand parents. I think Tom Brokaw has it right. They are the greatest generation.

They fought without question, for the freedom of Americans and the world, they helped one another rise above the poverty and tough times of the depression, they said no to racism by passing the Civil Rights Act and then they took us to the moon and back. They set a benchmark by which future generations of Americans will be measured. They have established a standard by which each and every one of you in this graduating class will be judged.

After you receive your diplomas today, turn in your gowns, and the party's over, you will begin the rest of your life. Many of you will go to new cities and begin the career you have been pursuing the past four years. Some of you will get in the car and follow mom and dad home. But you will all start to pen, through your actions, what you will be remembered for after you turn to dust.

Some of you will become every day contributors to your family, church and communities. Some of you will become leaders of these organizations. Some will achieve recognition as leaders of corporate America or walk the halls of Congress.

But whatever you become, from this day forward is up to you. It is your choice and it is you who will determine your destiny. In that vein, I challenge you to rise to the standards set by the greatest generation.

But that will not be an easy task. If any of you think you can just walk out of here, spend eight hours a day at a job, take home a pay check and buy that new car or house, then you are missing the point. I challenge you to go beyond that.

Today we are in the midst of the longest and most significant economic boom this country has ever experienced. We are creating millionaires each day. Americans have riches and wealth like never before. It is like the Emerald City of Oz with roads of gold.

But there is also another story you can choose to play a part in. It is the story of millions of children who wake up each morning wondering where their next meal will come from. There are children, here in this country, who survive from day to day, some days without meals, seldom with the healthcare many of us here take for granted. It is also the story we read in the newspapers each day about a lack of tolerance for those who are different. The stories about the immigrant who is gunned down at a bus stop, the gay student who just because he is gay is tied to a fence and beaten to death. This is what is happening right hear in suburban America and it rings close to home to me. You see, I am from Denver where my kids felt the traumatic experience as we all watched the Columbine tragedy unfold in front of our eyes. And finally it is the story about teenagers who are desperately looking for role models, and a helping hand that reaches out with support, not drugs or a gun.

In a nutshell, the question I am putting to those of you in this class is what part in this story will you play? You can choose to pick up that paycheck and go home, or you can choose to make a difference. A contribution. To your family, neighbors, and country. As Franklin Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, as this country faced a terrible depression, "The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit."

And so I challenge you to be leaders who are supporters of diversity, not racism. As a former executive of a large international corporation, I know that you can challenge those you work and live with in your communities, to treat those with a different skin color or accent or disability, with the respect every American is entitled to.

Take the lead through your actions, not just words. Challenge those who stereotype classes of people rather than reaching out to them. Don't be the bystander who is guilty of watching a tragedy in making. If you do, you shoulder the responsibility for what you have done.

I remember learning about a trash man in New York who rode on the back of the garbage truck each night, but felt he was a lower class person because of how people looked down on him. In the City, garbage men were stereotyped and looked down upon by many as being inferior. Yet I also remember when the trash haulers went on strike. The trash piled up in the streets for days and all of a sudden the citizens of New York really learned how bad it could be walking down the streets with the pungent smell and sight of trash everywhere. Almost overnight these people, who felt they weren't worth all that much, and who were treated as inferior, had the attention of the nation. In fact they had a key and important role to play in New York. Just like many others. While their job was different, it was necessary and just as important as the mayor's. Each job had to be done to keep the city working.

As students beginning your new careers, keep this lesson in mind. Everyone has a role, from the Chief Executive Officer, to the clerk in the copy room. And everyone doing their job is entitled to respect for the job they do. Many an executive has been brought down when they lost sight of the contribution of others to the organization.

A second challenge I have for you is to reach out in your communities to those who need help, who are less fortunate. This is especially true today, as we seem to have fallen in to times of a "me" generation. Everything is about "me," and how I get my wealth. There seems to be too little consideration of those who are less fortunate, at the same time that we as a nation have more wealth than ever before. More wealth, but less inclination to help those who need it.

And you can contribute with means other than just money. Many times a helping hand or a word of support can do more good than money. The time I've spent in junior high class rooms in disadvantaged neighborhoods or the time my daughter spends with the residents at the elderly manor in our neighborhood have made both of us better people. And hopefully the kids I had the good fortune to work with took as much away from the experience as I did.

And we shouldn't forget those words from a young president forty years ago; "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

Please, get involved with public service in your community, be it through the PTA, the city council or planning committee. Be a contributor and participant. Don't be a passive bystander who whines and complains about the system but isn't willing to make the sacrifice to find solutions or work toward a better way. Twenty some years in business have taught me that whiners and complainers neither achieve their potential, or the level of happiness they could. And when they look around and find others have past them by, they only have to look in the mirror for the reason why.

And let me finish off with advice on the tough decisions you will face for the next forty years of your career. And you will be faced with more than one tough one. There are going to come times, when you are stressed, when can't seem to find a friend, when the outlook is dark.

I remember a person I had worked with, Bill, who I had respected and considered a good person. He had moved to a new job as a Chief Financial Officer of a well-known company, in a new city, where he built a new expensive home for his family which included a newborn child. Shortly after joining the company, he found the books had been cooked and the company had financial difficulties. The company needed to raise money quickly to survive, and without the money, he would be without a job, with a new baby and a large mortgage payment in a city he did not know.

Bill went to the executive management team, told them of the problem. Their response was they knew of the problem, but if he would just work with them, they were certain the problem could be overcome over the course of the next year.

Unfortunately, Bill made the wrong decision and chose the easy path of trying to cover-up the problem. As a result, investors, many who had worked hard for their savings, lost hundreds of millions of dollars. And Bill? Well he learned a very hard lesson of life. Two wrongs don't make a right. He now works in Europe, as no one would give him a job in the U.S. as an accountant. Making the wrong decision didn't make his life better. It cost him much of what he had, leaving his reputation and credibility in shreds. The embarrassment his family had to endure was overwhelming.

Your ethics and morals are not a light switch you can turn on and off as you choose. Rather they are like a foundation upon which our values are built. Once a crack develops, it is only time before the house crumbles.

I can't say it strong enough; if you are faced with a tough decision, do what is right. Ask yourself, could you go home to mom and tell her what you did, and feel good about it? If not, then give her a call. While you may be heading in different directions once you walk out those doors this morning, your parents will always be there for you. When so many of us are looking for role models, for a shoulder to lean on, for a hero, we only need to look home.

Let me finish off by passing on a few lessons I have learned since graduation.

First, be an original. Don't be a copy of something you're not. People know when they are getting the original and when they are getting a printed copy. The original is always worth more. I've had people over the years tell me many a time that I should change this or that about myself. Most of those people are now forgotten, doing I don't know what.

Second, do what you like. If you don't like what you are doing, then you won't be happy, no matter what the financial reward is. I've had a great run, first with twenty years at Coopers & Lybrand, now part of the firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, then a couple of years as vice president and CFO of Symbios, and for the past two years as the Chief Accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission. All of these have been quality organizations, with the best people I could ask to work with. I would not change a thing I have done. I hope you all have an equally rewarding career.

Third, work hard with every bit of enthusiasm you have. I work with many of the top business and government executives not only in the US, but also around the world. One thing they all have in common is they have an unbelievable zeal and energy for what they are doing, and as a result, they work very hard. Keep in mind that the person who works forty hours a week will have four years of experience four years from now. The person who works sixty hours a week will have six years of experience. The person with four years of experience gets the four-year job; the person with six years of experience gets the six-year job.

Fourth, your education does not end today. In today's world, each new experience, each new day serves to act as a fountain of knowledge. And knowledge is both a tool and power. Those with the right tools build better buildings and better communities. Those who use knowledge wisely will prosper. I encourage all of the undergraduates receiving their diplomas today, to seek their masters tomorrow.

Finally, listen. Our creator gave us all two ears for a reason, and it wasn't as a keeper for your glasses or cap. All too often I find that people are not communicating with one another, or make poor decisions, when they are speaking at one another, not listening. You can never listen enough. Listen to your manager. Listen to your employees. Listen to your customers. Listen to your parents. Wisdom comes with age and from learning from one's own mistakes and experiences.

My experience has shown me that too many salesmen spend too much time talking and not enough time listening. Shortly after I joined Symbios I learned we had problems with certain products. It seemed like everyone in the organization had a reason for the problem. But it was not until I met with our customers and listened to what they had to say, that I got a clear picture of the issues and the solution.


So in the end, my advice to this class of 2000 is never stop reaching for more. More for yourself, more for your fellow citizen, more for your country and the world. Reach for the standards set by the Greatest Generation, and beyond.

A high goal can be achieved if we recognize the heights that we can attain. Let me close with the words from a folk song.

"I have flown to the star-stained heights,
on bent and battered wings
in search of mythical kings,
sure that everything of worth
is in the sky and not on earth.
And I have never learned to make my way
down, down, down where the iguana play."

You and I spend enough time with the iguanas. There are star-stained heights to be attained, if we will reach for them. Now is the time to reach.

Webmaster Note:   Song lyrics by Dory Previn.