Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reaching way back

I spent almost twenty five years in corporate America.  When I left I was the controller of a subsidiary of a division of a very large corporation.  My company was chewed up and spit out by the very large corporation.  In classic “what goes around comes around,” that very large corporation was chewed up and spit out by an international conglomerate.  The brand remains, the corporate identity doesn’t. I rather enjoyed the very public annihilation of the corporation spit out by the conglomerate.  Sadly, the original little company was the leading edge of the takeover game and not even a footnote in the current “too big to fail” scene.

When I was the young whippersnapper, I worked in companies that valued employees, and for people who mentored those of us coming up.  Looking back to fifty years ago, I was not naive, as some cynics have suggested, or working in some Shangri La, or too friendly with the boss.  The president of my company actually earned fifteen times as much as a new hire on the line.  When a new plant was required and built, the factory was air conditioned.  Major decisions involved doing the right thing.  We really asked that question in meetings, and meant for our company, for its employees.

We built a cutting edge product and sold one important component of it to other manufacturers. This led to us being purchased the first time by a company that wanted to develop that component further.  Although we were the smaller fish in the bigger pond, our contribution was important.  But the company who bought us had something an even bigger company wanted, and there was another purchase.  The story is up to the mid eighties by now, and take over’s were becoming common.  These buyers spun-off those unnecessary bits that once provided jobs and products, but were not structured to stand alone. 

So, the tuna that swallowed us was swallowed by a whale.  They didn’t want us for our product, or even our ability; they wanted us for our great big factory that could make zillions of pc boards for their product.  They didn’t need our engineers, they didn’t need our sales force, they didn’t need our support staff.  It took a couple of years to come down to that; the original principals of my company struggled to keep their product viable.  Over that period of time all the employees wondered what would become of us every time someone from corporate showed up.  We were destined to be another spun-off.

I learned valuable business skills when I was in corporate America.  I loved my jobs, until the last year. I loved looking out for the bottom line.  I loved running a department.  I loved going to work every day.  I loved dressing the part.  I invented organized closets before California Closet existed.  When I took off my suit each night it went to the end of the line.  I wonder how many I had.  Then there were the shoes.  Three inch heels, minimum.  That brought me up to five foot nine, back then, and I could look anybody close to in the eye.

Imagine the recollection when I found that picture.  That’s me.  In my office in corporate America.  In 1988.  What is she wearing, you ask.  Well, I’m sure I had on Dockers, and I see I had on a Big Shirt.  This was a work day, not the week end.  Most of my department would have been in similar attire.  Most of the staff in all the offices and cubicles could have blended in with all the service and factory workers. 

It was toward the end of the last year I worked there.  No one was happy, smile notwithstanding.  Every drawer was full of candy or change for the vending machines.  There may be a week’s worth of candy in that bag. Every one of us was gaining weight from the constant snacking. Morale was rock bottom.  There was no pleasing corporate, especially when we reported to a new boss weekly.   At some point I realized everyone was in sloppy clothes, myself included.  Oh, well. They fit.

One day I went down the hall full tilt, shirt tails flapping, around the corner and straight into the head of HR, on an unannounced visit from corporate.  He looked me up.  He looked me down. He said, “Well, well.  Joanne.”  I greeted him and shook his hand and kept on going.  The next day the dress code arrived from corporate.

All women will be attired in suits, maximum; skirts, blouses and jackets, minimum.  The men had to smarten up, too.

I went shopping that night and bought two men’s suits, white shirts, ties, wing tip shoes and socks.  Oh, and a man’s belt.  That’s what I wore for the several months I remained a good employee.  I apologized to my staff; I still feel personally responsible for that dress code.  I am also very proud of the subsequent careers of the staff I mentored as they too left. 

And, thanks to everyone who taught me how to run a good business.  That’s what Jan and I did for the next twenty years.


  1. Great morale is everything and working for the common good is so important. Great story.