Paul O’Neill was not a native of Pittsburgh, but he became deeply woven into the fabric here, first as the CEO of Alcoa, then even more so in the decades following his tenure as the U.S. Treasury Secretary, until his death early in 2020. It’s safe to say he became a Pittsburgh’er, and we fellow Pittsburgh’ers are much the better for it. Paul cared deeply about this region and its people – our health, our education, our environment, our opportunities and future — and worked in a myriad of ways to help improve daily living in this community, as well as the long-term, big-picture quality of life in our region. Paul’s legacy, his impact and his influence live on, in Pittsburgh and beyond, thankfully. I share here, “Vision and Action: A Remembrance of Paul O’Neill,” from Douglas Heuck, a 35-year veteran Pittsburgh investigative and business journalist and founder of the Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine.
Mr. Heuck recalls that he first met O’Neill in 1997, while Heuck was running a project at the local newspaper. The project gathered data from other regions of the country to assess how Pittsburgh compared, and involved periodic roundtable discussions of local leaders to seek solutions to problems the project revealed. Heuck’s first interactions with O’Neill occurred at a roundtable on the Pittsburgh economy, which Heuck describes as, “…a room of big personalities (and egos), but the biggest presence was Paul. His insight, analysis and directness made the relatively diminutive Alcoa CEO dwarf the other, taller men.” Following that initial interaction, Heuck sent a letter to O’Neill (the only letter of this type Heuck ever sent) conveying his admiration for Paul and expressing the hope that they could work together some day.
When he took over at Alcoa, the old ways were out…. He set up a new, egalitarian culture with a new corporate headquarters embodying the change. He was a crusader, setting a national example for seeking zero workplace injuries and railing against medication errors caused by physicians’ illegible handwriting and other flawed but remediable practices.
Heuck eventually was able to work with O’Neill, when O’Neill headed the advisory board of Pittsburgh Today (the regional benchmarking project evolved and is focused on improving Pittsburgh). They became friends, but mainly knew each other through the work of Pittsburgh Today.
Rather than listing the accomplishments of their work together, Heuck shares a wonderful and fascinating artifact he found in is files this past May – O’Neill’s introductory statement he gave in that 1997 roundtable. It begins with this (emphasis added is Value Capture’s, not Heuck’s):
Borrowing from 15 years of government service and more than 20 years in the private sector, I was trying to think: What are the common elements of what I would consider to be success? “Where you find real success, first of all you find a vision of excellence. It’s not just one person’s vision of excellence but one that is shared in the community. The second characteristic of success is not being denied execution. It’s a determination to knock down walls or whatever it takes to succeed. And the third element is speed of execution. You don’t sit around and wait and hope and wish. You actually go commit things and do things.Paul O'Neill
Heuck ends his remembrance with a clarion call of obligation to spread O’Neill’s vision of excellence and pass it on to future generations: “That passage encapsulates the man I knew and the candor and vision he brought to Pittsburgh. It’s the job of those of us who are involved here to carry the torch forward.”