CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: Wall Street and cowboy ethics

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Commentary Wall Street and cowboy ethics

Today, thanks to companies like Enron and WorldCom and to news like recent revelations about stockoption back-dating, the ethics and character of businesspeople, particularly those in corporate America, have come into question.

And rightfully so. There’s been enough news of malfeasance and greed in the last decade to choke a horse.

One Wall Street veteran of 35 years was so troubled by the trend that he got up in the saddle and wrote a book about cowboy ethics, which he proposes as a personal code for people in his business … and for the rest of us.

James P. Owen, author of the 1990 financial best seller “The Prudent Investor: The Definitive Guide to Professional Investment Management,” was in town last week to promote his new book and speak at the kick-off brunch for an art show and sale at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.

I spent some time with him and talked about “Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West,” his own distillation of the values that lived in the heart and soul of that icon of the West, the American cowboy.

Inspired by Louis L’Amour novels and cowboy movies as a kid, Owen-like many young men of our generation-was always intrigued by the mystique of the cowboy, the rough-hewn man of few words who lived off the land and could be counted on in times of trouble.

His long-dormant admiration of cowpokes was rekindled after watching “Open Range,” the 2003 western starring Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner.

But it wasn’t the beautiful scenery or the classic battle between good and evil that got him.

“It had more to do with the characters … two cowboys who lived a grueling life in the saddle, but cared about loyalty and honor above all,” Owen wrote.

“It may sound hokey, but that movie took me back to my childhood-a time when every boy imagined being the Lone Ranger or Hopalong Cassidy, galloping over the range and rescuing the schoolmarm or the stagecoach driver from peril,” he said.

Been there; done that.

But Owen really isn’t talking today about those kinds of heroes. He’s talking about the working cowboys-men of their word, for whom a handshake sealed a deal.

They drove cattle across the Great Plains during a brief 20-year window following the Civil War until 1886, “when overgrazing, a summer of drought and a winter of fierce blizzards wiped out much of the industry,” Owen wrote. “By 1890, barbed wire was closing off the open range and the era of the great trail drives was over.”

But the simple cowboy credo lived on.

Owen spent 14 months reading everything he could get his hands on that had anything to do with the Code of the West. What he found was this: There was no written code. So through his readings, he came up with one he believes accurately reflects the ethics cowboys lived by (see box).

“Cowboy Ethics,” which can be purchased at the Eiteljorg gift shop, is full of anecdotes, wit and homespun philosophy, not to mention the stunning photographs of world-renowned western photographer David Stoecklein. It’s definitely worth a look and a read. And its message is something we can all take to heart in this era of celebrity worship, when true heroes are hard to come by.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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