CEO, Knight, Peacemaker
BY William Flynn
August 1-7, 1999 Issue | Posted 8/1/99 at 1:00 PM
President of the American Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, he is involved in numerous charitable and international activities, including the peace effort in Northern Ireland. He spoke recently with Register correspondent Jim Malerba.
Malerba: How has your Catholic faith shaped your approach to business life, particularly regarding moral and ethical issues?
Flynn: My parents, who were both immigrants from Ireland, had a very strong sense of family. They were people of great faith. They raised all four of us — I have one brother and two sisters — in a religious household. We went to morning Mass at least two to three times a week and prayed the rosary as a family. We also went to novenas at our church on Long Island. All that, with their unceasing love and their continuing examples, instilled in me tremendous values as a child. In any event, it's always been with me.
Can you give an example or two of major policies you've implemented that resulted from your personal values?
I can tell you that Mutual of America operates like no other company, at least none that I've seen. For example, we instituted a no-layoff policy some years ago, because I wanted to put into practice the Church's teaching about the dignity of all people. The rule is this: Layoffs can occur only if the chief executive and the chief financial officer go first. Another thing we've done is seen to it that we give enormous amounts of money to charity. We have always encouraged our employees to give as well, and we match their contributions dollar for dollar.
Have these policies influenced others?
I believe so, though sometimes in an unusual way. Once, I was asked to debate John Sweeney, who is head of the AFL-CIO union. I spoke first and talked in-depth about how important it is to have high moral and ethical standards in business, and to treat everyone, regardless of standing, the way you would want to be treated. When I finished, John got up and said, “You just gave my speech.” It was quite a compliment.
You must have had the same influence on your family.
I raised my four children the same way I was raised. I'm happy to say they are all practicing Catholics, though some practice more than others. But they all attend Mass and perform other spirituals. My wife, Peggy, deserves a lion's share of the credit for that.
How did you become involved with the Knights of Malta?
It was more than 35 years ago. Some business friends invited me to attend one of their meetings. At the time, I was chairman of a board to help disadvantaged kids. I guess they figured that since the Knights of Malta have a strong charitable presence, I would make a good addition to the ranks.
Is there just one American Association?
There are three, though ours is the largest, with 1,800 members. There are also a Federal and Western associations, though each of those is substantially smaller than the American Association.
Did you move up through the ranks to your current position of president?
Actually, no. I was simply a member and never gave a thought to a leadership role. I was happy just to be part of this great organization. Then, almost out of the blue, some people from Rome met with me and sounded me out about taking a leadership role. About two months later, I was asked to consider being president. Then, in 1994, I was elected to that position.
What was your agenda once you became head of the Knights?
I set three important goals. The first had to do with the governance of the association. The aim was to make it a more democratic institution. The second had to do with mission. The aim was to set for the association a major undertaking to which the Knights, in addition to its regular activities, could devote their principal energies in an area where we were capable of making a very major contribution. The third goal was to substantially improve our communication capabilities, so members could be kept completely aware of all our activities. In addition, I felt it was absolutely necessary that we learn how to communicate to all Catholic and non-Catholic neighbors, so our work could be an inspiration to them.
Please speak of some of the results of your efforts.
I'm happy to do so. With respect to governance, we first of all reduced the board in size from approximately 35 members to 24 members. Second, we placed term limits on membership on the board and on all of the officers, including the president. We instituted three-year terms, renewable once. This gave us the ability for the future to bring in new blood and new ideas to the board. Finally, inspired by a change in the rules decreed by our grand master in Rome, we gave every member of the association the right to vote for the candidates for membership on the board. Henceforth, there would be a management slate offered to the membership. However, each member now had the right to propose a candidate or candidates for election, provided at least nine other Knights supported that candidate. All this, we believe, will make the American Association of the Knights of Malta extremely democratic in its operations. All members will have a voice in the selection of the men and women who will run the association.
How about changes with respect to the Knights' mission?
With respect to that goal, we have already decided to explore very carefully what we can do in a significant way to set up pregnancy crisis centers, as well as homes for those young girls and women, where they can live for a time.
There, they will learn parenting skills and, equally important, job skills. With respect to pregnancy crisis centers, we are considering having a “storefront” location, where women can come to learn about the alternatives to abortion.
We need to educate them about this, and we need to teach them to fish, not just give them a fish, so they can become good mothers, and also productive women in society. These kids are in trouble because of a lack of moral education, and we want to play a major role in changing that.
Let's move to your role in the Northern Ireland peace talks. How did you become part of that effort?
As it happens so many times, it was an indirect route. I was taking a training course with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and at lunch one day, we got into a discussion on the subject. Then, I met Sister Dorothy Ann Kelly, who was president of the College of New Rochelle, and head of an organization called The Peace People. Through her involvement, she got me in touch with others who were part of the peace process.
What was your major accomplishment in this area?
Once I got the lay of the land, I went directly to the Loyalist and Catholic paramilitaries, and spoke at length with them. From that came the idea of inviting both sides to come to the United States and give their views to the American people and to our leaders.
With the help of Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and Sen. Ted Kennedy, we were able to get through to President Clinton. He gave the green light to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, to come to America for 48 hours. That in itself was a tremendous breakthrough, since Adams had never been welcome here. People listened to his message and that led to his being invited to the White House later. I was fortunate to join with all those who had helped and accompanied him to the White House.
What was your advice to both sides in Northern Ireland? They appear to have listened to you, at least to some extent.
What I told them, rather pointedly, was that the guy who shoots is really the one who loses. Unfortunately, the peace process has broken down again, though there has been progress. I was in Ireland for the recent march, and I was happy to see that at least there wasn't any violence. No matter how you slice it, there is still the split between Unionists and Catholics. But I don't give up. I am going back to Northern Ireland, to see what I can do to help bring a true peace there.
You also are chairman of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. When were you appointed, and what is your role?
Terribly helpful to me, with respect to my work in Ireland, was my long association with the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
The committee is a group of scholars as well as activists in the field of foreign policy. Members generally tend to be specialists in American foreign policy and have involved themselves in many activities, from the expansion of NATO to the Chinese-Taiwanese cross-strait problems.
The board was unanimous in supporting the initiatives taken with respect to Northern Ireland. As a result, we were able to visit and exchange views with every leader in the North of Ireland. Our hope is that we help bring them closer together.
What advice do you have for other business leaders regarding their moral and ethical conduct with employees, other businesses, etc.?
Corporate America traditionally built their companies on, among other things, the presumption of employee loyalty. Corporations instituted retirement plans, health insurance plans, and so forth, all with the intent of developing greater employee loyalty, and the resulting willingness to do a first-class job. Many firms continue to act in this way, always looking out for the best interests of their employees.
However, too many — and this is increasingly so — demand loyalty, but when push comes to shove, they act in their own interests, without regard to the impact on their employees. Loyalty is a two-way street. Unless this trend is corrected, we will enter a no man's land, where it is each man for himself.
I am convinced that if we continue in this direction, we will sooner or later face a doomsday scenario.
We should do everything we can to avoid this and promote the truth that loyalty is, in fact, a two-way street.
Personal: Married to Peggy; has four children and 10 grandchildren.
Education: Graduated from Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception on Long Island; earned a master's in economics from Fordham University; awarded various honorary doctorates.
Military: Served in the Air Force during the Korean conflict.
Awards: Has received numerous awards from religious, charitable, educational and social groups, including the Elizabeth Ann Seton Award from the National Educational Association and the Federal Law Enforcement Community Leadership Award.
Current position: Chairman and chief executive officer, Mutual of America Life Insurance Co., New York.
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