wo very different stories came to my attention this past week that have a common thread. First, Don Carty, president and CEO of American Airlines -- which lost $3.5 billion last year -- did not deposit a bonus check. Second, travel agency owner Arnold Greenblad bought a coffin.

And each helped his respective business in a significant way.

Let's look at Carty first. It would not, on first blush, seem unusual that the leader of a business that has lost billions (and may yet declare bankruptcy) doesn't enjoy the boon of a bonus. But it is extremely unusual. Let's see who did deposit a bonus:

Continental's Gordon Bethune, whose airline reported a loss of $451 million for the past four quarters, took a bonus of $625,000 on top of his $1.1 million salary.

Leo Mullin of Delta, an airline that has bled $1.3 billion for the past four reporting periods, received a $1.4 million bonus over and above his $795,000 salary.

Northwest's Richard Anderson, with typical Midwestern modesty, accepted only $250,000 over and above his $500,000 salary. His airline lost $798 million in the same time period.

And United's Glenn Tilton, hired in September, received a signing bonus of $3 million on top of the $312,000 in salary he received for the partial year. United lost $3.2 billion last year.

What is especially noteworthy about Carty is that, according to American, he was offered a bonus in 2002 but refused it. American said Carty also refused a bonus in 2001 and will not take one this year.

Now let's move on to Greenblad, owner of Atlas Travel in Brockton, Mass., and his coffin.

His agency serves a large Haitian community. A client of his recently came into his office. Her husband had died, and she was inquiring about bereavement fares so her Haitian relatives could attend the funeral. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned how much she had paid the funeral home for a casket: $3,200. Greenblad recognized that was a high sum, so he took her online and found the same casket for $1,800. She had no credit card, so he used his and she paid him back in cash.

Earlier, I promised a common thread to their stories, and it is this: Both Carty and Greenblad demonstrated they understand the role that personal conduct plays in the maintenance of business relationships.

I have no doubt that Carty's refusal to take a bonus enabled him to face his labor force and say, "I'm voluntarily making a financial concession to the realities of this business. You must do so, too." And they did, allowing him to pull back, for the time being, from the verge of bankruptcy.

Greenblad attended the wake of his client's husband, where word had spread about her savings of $1,400, and his role in it. The continued health of his business may well depend on the trust the community places in him, and his actions consistently reward that trust.

"It's all part of the travel business, isn't it?" he said. "Helping people out? You might say I helped arrange someone's last trip, his last accommodations."

Carty has had his differences with the travel agency community, but his bonus boycott at least demonstrates his personal commitment to his company's survival. Greenblad likewise demonstrates his concern for his community and, by extension, to the survival of his business.

An existentialist would say that your life is judged by what you do. Not by what you say, not by what you intend, not by how much money you make, but how you act and how your actions affect others.

The examples above are by no means a complete picture of these individuals. They just represent some raw existential data to mull over when sizing up what sort of fellow each is -- and in Carty's case, to look at how he compares with his competitors.


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