A note on corporations and on a Porsche museum

by Rob Tiller

Last week the Red Hat senior management team met for two days in Raleigh. We’re an international company with management that’s widely distributed, and so there were a few team members that I had not met before, and others I got to know better. They were for the most part lively and interesting.

So what is a corporation? In our meetings we spent some time discussing public ownership and shareholder value. But the profit motive is generic. Just as every human has to eat, every corporation has to make money. There are many ways to do those things. There are also many attitudes and activities that make a corporation, or a person, distinctive. The reason the workers get excited about coming to work (if they do) is something other than the excitement of enriching investors.

Red Hat has a lot of people who are passionate about their work, in part because of the exciting technological challenges, and in part because of a set of widely shared values. Our open source products grow out of values and customs that include transparency and collaboration. This is one of the things about the company that I find distinctive and inspiring, but it also presents challenges. In acting as an attorney, there are obvious limits to transparency, because attorneys must take account of and honor competing values, including confidentiality. There’s a built in tension in the value sets that’s challenging.

A special treat of the meeting was dinner at the Ingram collection in downtown in Durham. It’s a semi-secret institution that turned out to be a proper museum devoted to my favorite automobile, the Porsche. It had some 35 vintage and rare Porsches along with a couple of stray but also gorgeous new Ferraris. The Porsches included several historic 356’s, many variations of the 911 (though they didn’t have anything to line up with my particular 911s (Clara)) a Carrera GT supercar and a recent GT3. Some of the examples took years to obtain. They were all lovingly restored and displayed. One could trace the stylistic touches through the years that connected the designs organically, like DNA.

The Ingram collection could be viewed as conspicuous consumption that takes the category to a whole new level of wretched excess. But it felt more like the Rodin sculptures at the NC Museum, or the Frick collection in NYC. Frick’s former house, a mansion facing Central Park, contains a collection of old master and Impressionist art that is pound for pound one of the best in the world. I presume, without having studied the issue, that Mr. Frick was a robber baron with the worst of them. But whatever his personal failings, his collecting became itself a creative act. And so has Mr. Ingram created a sort of collective work.

It was interesting that the collection not only discourages photographs, but goes so far as to impound cameras from its guests. I can understand the need to be security conscious, but I wondered if anything else was going on. It did occur to me that if class warfare ever breaks out, the mobs with pitchforks might show up in a state of dangerously high excitement. But they might settle for a Porsche.