As far as Roger Crandall is concerned, big businesses shouldn’t just mind their own business.
The MassMutual chief executive came to the Associated Industries of Massachusetts meeting in Waltham on Friday with an agenda: to underscore what he thinks should be done to make the entire state more competitive.
Yes, MassMutual is based in Springfield. But you should expect to see more of Crandall around the Boston area.
Crandall is raising his profile int his region as the giant life insurer embarks on an ambitious expansion in the Seaport, where it plans to employ 1,000 after its office tower there opens in about two years. (MassMutual is also adding 1,500 jobs over time in its home city, as part of a major office consolidation, with the help of a record-breaking $46 million in state tax credits.)
In recent weeks, Crandall spoke at a major financial services conference, and at the New England Council’s annual dinner as one of the group's four “New Englanders of the Year.” With the AIM breakfast, though, Crandall offered up a new speech, with the hopes of galvanizing the 200-plus business leaders in the room into action.
Crandall wants to persuade lawmakers to adopt Governor Charlie Baker’s stalled Housing Choice bill, which would make it easier to change zoning rules at the local level to spur home construction. He called for more down-payment assistance for buyers, another issue that’s tied up at the State House. And he said companies should do more to help the poor and disenfranchised, citing MassMutual’s $1 million gift to Mayor Marty Walsh’s Way Home Fund to subsidize long-term housing for the homeless in Jamaica Plain.
It’s become a Boston pastime to complain about traffic. Welcome to the club, Roger. Now that he spends more time in Boston, he’s experiencing his fair share. His top transportation priority: convincing the powers-that-be to put more money behind a commuter train link between Boston and Springfield. Turn that into a 90-minute commute, Crandall says, and you could ease congestion on the pike while helping address the housing shortage in Greater Boston. (Crandall’s remarks prompted UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy to stand up and give “East-West Rail” a shout out in the Q&A portion of the event.)
Crandall’s other top priority: boosting support for schools. Crandall is the point person on education for the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the group of high-powered CEOs, and advocated for the bill that the Legislature passed this week to address glaring disparities among school districts. But more needs to be done: Crandall is particularly focused on improving the state of early childhood education and vocational instruction.
Prodded by AIM Chief Executive John Regan, Crandall expressed concerns about a proposed income tax surcharge on high earners, a measure getting teed up to go to voters in 2022. He said we should be careful about turning Massachusetts into a high-tax state because of the potential negative economic impact.
Crandall only spoke briefly about his own company and its heft, with its $32.5 billion in revenue last year and 7,500-plus employees.
He had other things to talk about. Crandall is among a new generation of chief executives who see their responsibilities as going beyond simply maximizing profits. (Of course, this is easier for Crandall, running a mutual company, than for public company CEOs.)
Crandall believes this shift in the business community probably started when companies began granting same-sex partner benefits, even before gay marriage was legal. But now, corporate advocacy has broadened to include climate change, gun control, and health care, among other topics. Crandall was one of 180-plus CEOs who pledged in August to make decisions with all constituencies in mind — employees as well as customers and communities — and not just stockholders.
As the AIM event wound down, one attendee asked Crandall if he ever thought about running for public office. He quickly responded: No. Then, from another corner of the room: Would you please? Another no.
From Crandall’s vantage point, running a company might be his most effective way of contributing to the public debate.