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April 6, 2003

Private Sector; An Antiwar Chief (and Proud of It)


By AMY CORTESE


ALAN KLIGERMAN is the first to say he has had good fortune. He has prospered as an entrepreneur, he says, and appreciates the rights he enjoys as an American.

''I am for this country,'' he said in an interview last week. ''Nobody should misinterpret that.''

In that assessment, he hardly stands out among the ranks of corporate executives. But he has distinguished himself in one particularly contentious way: he has been a vocal and unrelenting critic of President Bush and the war in Iraq.

Despite the prominent role that business executives have played in shaping debate on other matters of public policy, from deregulation to tax cuts and labor law, remarkably few have publicly expressed an opinion about the war, either for or against.

Fred Talbott, a professor of leadership communication at Vanderbilt University's M.B.A. program, says chief executives in particular often have perspectives that can be valuable in a national debate.

''Business and other leaders,'' he said, ''seem to be reluctant to speak out at all.'' The reasons, Mr. Talbott and others say, include a fear of offending their company's shareholders and customers, and of being publicly labeled unpatriotic.

As the founder and chief executive of his company, AkPharma Inc. in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., Mr. Kligerman shrugs off such concerns. He built a small empire creating digestive aids like Lactaid, a brand of milk for people who cannot digest lactose, or milk sugar. He also developed Beano, an enzyme that breaks down the complex sugars that can make beans hard to digest.

He sold the rights to both of those products years ago, though AkPharma makes versions of Beano and Lactaid for pets, as well as several new antacid products, including Prelief, for people.

''The U.S. is a land of unbelievable, unparalleled upward economic mobility for the entrepreneur,'' Mr. Kligerman said. ''That is something I truly appreciate.''

Mr. Kligerman was born in Atlantic City and worked in his parents' dairy business near there, delivering milk to customers.

After studying dairy science at Cornell, he started an ice cream delivery service in the late 1950's and later founded a low-sugar ice cream company called SugarLo. From there, he moved into nondairy ice cream and then lactose-reduced dairy products; that business became Lactaid Inc. in 1974.

At the same time, Mr. Kligerman raised five children with his first wife. He is now married to Donna Battista, a pianist, and has seven grandchildren.

Through the Kligerman Foundation, of which he is chairman, he has contributed to nutritional research and other philanthropic causes.

But while praising the United States, Mr. Kligerman does not hesitate to speak out against the Bush administration. He contends that its policies, particularly involving the war in Iraq, are tarnishing the worldwide image of the United States as ''a haven for the oppressed, a place of free speech, free thought and free yet governed economic growth.''

Mr. Kligerman, who will turn 73 this month, protested the Vietnam War in the 1960's. He supports the Anti-Defamation League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He supports Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a nonpartisan group of business executives and former military officers who contend that the government's spending priorities, particularly involving the military, do not address the nation's most pressing needs.

Mr. Kligerman's name has appeared in antiwar advertisements that the group has run in newspapers and magazines to warn that war in Iraq will not only take a terrible toll in human life but will also hurt the economy and breed terrorism.

In addition, he has given speeches and written op-ed essays criticizing government positions on the war, energy policy and civil rights. Most of all, he has lamented what he calls the hubris that characterizes the Bush administration.

In debates about the war in Iraq and the country's domestic and foreign agendas, such views are not uncommon. What is unusual is for a business executive to express them as publicly -- and as often -- as Mr. Kligerman does.

He acknowledges that it is easier for him to speak his mind because his company is small and privately owned. Leaders of large, publicly traded companies, on the other hand, generally find it too risky to take a stand on the war -- for or against.

The few who have made their feelings known have been harshly rebuked. Richard Abdoo, the chairman and chief executive of the Wisconsin Energy Corporation in Milwaukee, for example, was pilloried as un-American by talk-radio hosts and criticized in an editorial in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after he made a private $250 donation last November to the Not in Our Name Project, a group opposed to the war. Mr. Abdoo's name appeared on the group's Web site, as did the name of his company.

A spokesman for Wisconsin Energy said Mr. Abdoo was trying to put the episode behind him and would not comment on it.

Unlike Hollywood celebrities or other public figures who have been openly critical of the government, corporate executives have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders that makes it difficult to separate personal actions from official duties. Not surprisingly, most of the executives who have taken a public stance on the war have been from small or private companies, or are retired.

One notable example is R. Warren Langley, one of dozens of antiwar protesters arrested in mid-March trying to disrupt the Pacific Stock Exchange. Mr. Langley, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel, was president of the exchange from 1996 to 1999.

Mr. Kligerman said he had received no negative reactions to his public comments -- and had no second thoughts about making them. ''The Bush administration does not embody America,'' he said. ''America to me is not a country that suddenly suspends constitutional rights, imprisons without charge, without access to legal counsel or family.''



 

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