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LESSONS LEARNED // Seasoned executive offers food for thought

Colonel Harland Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken chain had just been sold to a bunch of Northerners. And the chicken king had a serious beef.

The white-suited founder barged into a meeting where the new CEO was talking about changes he planned to make at the company.

"They want to change the gravy," Frank Maguire, then senior vice president, told the Colonel. "They want to make it with water."

Sanders leaned across the table and pointed at the CEO. "Don't fool with the gravy," he demanded.

"What you say, Colonel, doesn't matter," the CEO replied.

Sanders got up and headed for the door.

"Where you going?" they asked Sanders.

"Going on the Johnny Carson show to say the gravy ain't fit to eat."

The moral of the story?

"Don't fool with the gravy," Maguire told the group of local CEOs gathered at the Tampa Club on Thursday. He used the gravy episode to remind them that they shouldn't mess with the basics if they want to succeed in business. Specifically, they should consider their employees as, well, gravy.

"Take care of the people," Maguire said, "and the revenue will follow."

Maguire's message runs counter to the lean-and-mean lectures of other corporate titans, who often treat employees as costs to be controlled, rather than talent to be developed.

But he preaches the principle based on his KFC days, as well as his time as a senior vice president at Federal Express Corp. Maguire also worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations on the "War on Poverty" Task Force.

"You can't put a value on people," Maguire told the Executive Committee, a group of business executives who meet once a month to discuss management problems.

"They are not your best asset. They ARE your business," Maguire said. "You aren't going anyplace if the people who work for you don't make it happen."

Corporate chiefs often lose sight of how important employees are and tend to think of them as cogs in the machinery rather than people.

"The big crime in America today is the deprivation of human dignity," said Maguire, who alsoworked at the ABC network, where he hired newscasters Charles Osgood and Ted Koppel.

Employees look up to the company executive and "they don't want you to look at them as a number," he said. And valued employees do the best work.

"Your role is not to micro-manage companies," he told the group. "Your role is to hire the right people, validate them . . . and get out of the way."

So whatever happened to that other gravy, at Kentucky Fried Chicken? The Colonel got his way _ it stayed the same.