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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hoovering Europe


No good deed goes unpunished, it is said. Sometimes neither does a bad deed.

This is another story about my corporate days, when I was the controller, etc. The corporation was Maytag, and way down at my end, the subsidiary was the company that manufactured bill accepting machines found round the world, dispensing everything from soft drinks to laundromat soap. We called them dollar bill acceptors, but they recognized close to a hundred different currencies.

The company was not too old when I was hired, nor too big, and manufactured those little bill recognition systems for vending machines everywhere; soft drinks are ubiquitous. About the time we were acquired the first time, by a vending machine company, our marketing team had the product pretty heavily into gaming machines and fuel dispensing, too.

Remember Pac-Man and other such games of skill in restaurants and bars? Our Japanese distributor was the manufacturer. All this work predated credit card recognition systems, for gasoline, for instance. The units were commonly used in Europe for gasoline. They could not be used in this country because unattended stations were illegal in most states. The days of self service had begun, but we went into the station and said “Ten dollars on pump two.” Remember?

My last ten years were a whirlwind of acquisitions and divestitures. I outlasted three division presidents, but not the fourth. His fall occurred after I was gone, but friends filled me in. My little company of fewer than one hundred people was acquired by a soft drink manufacturing company that also was a division of Magic Chef. It made sense for them to own the company that supplied their dollar bill acceptors. And so life went on for several years.

Then Magic Chef was acquired by Maytag. Why? Maytag wanted to build refrigerators, but didn’t want to start from scratch. “Let’s buy a company that builds refrigerators!” Magic Chef manufactured Admiral, and hey presto, the deal was done. Sadly, it was the beginning of the end for Magic Chef, as all its subsidiaries were spun off, and then Magic Chef itself. No more stoves.

Back at my plant, life was not going on so well. Maytag was not interested in my company’s note recognition machines, but in its pc board ability, and especially the very automated and skilled production lines we had built. Maytag products were transitioning from analog to digital, running on printed circuit boards. The once friendly factory floor became quiet and tense, wary of the “new bosses.”

Lots of changes were occurring in the office, too. Old faces gone, new faces appearing. New lines of command. One day I no longer reported to my boss, but to a division president. The one who outlasted me. I recall walking into the usual Monday staff meeting and being greeted by a roar of “Traitor!” as a joke.

It came off totally wrong; I turned on my heel, went to the ladies room, sat in a closed stall and tried to think it through. Eventually everyone came in and pounded on my door to come out, they were sorry. Someone crawled under the stall door and opened it; we all had a good laugh. Probably the last one we had together, ten men and women crowded into the tiny ladies room.

We were becoming so unhappy with the sinister transformation of the happy little company everyone one of us in the “front offices” were getting fat; our desk drawers were stuffed with candy bars. Everyone was outgrowing suits and falling back on slacks and shirts. I've written about wheeling around a corner, shirt tails flying, and walking smack into the head of HR, straight from Newton, Ioway, Maytag’s headquarters. Did you know why that beagle in the Maytag commercials was named Newton?

HR looked me up then down, and the next morning there was a dress code directive from Newton. I felt awful about that; the women in my department didn't make a lot and supported families, and now were being told they must wear skirts, blouses, jackets, stockings and appropriate shoes to work. That was the bad deed that did not go unpunished, but not until two or three years later, when I was long gone.

Maytag was acquiring Hoover as I was leaving. Hoover employed hundreds and hundreds in a town near me. All gone now. Did Maytag want to add vacuums to its line? Of course not. They wanted Hoover’s European distribution system, which was sizable and stable. And that HR fellow who caused the dress code became president of Maytag International, headquartered in England. He took with him a sizable chunk of Maytag that had made our lives unpleasant, I heard. I was gone by then.

A couple of years on the new president in England decided to boost weak sales of Hoovers in Britain and on the continent. He had a brilliant idea. He would give away an airline voucher with the purchase of every Hoover.

The scheme progressed beautifully for the better part of a year; his division’s sales led every other Maytag division sales. Until toward year end, when folks with vouchers began cashing them in, intent on holiday travel.  Sitting at my own kitchen table one morning, two or three years into my weaving career, I spit coffee all over the business section of the morning paper. 

There were not enough airplanes, there were not enough airplane hours, pilots, staff, airports to accommodate all those vouchers. A lot of unhappy people, including Maytag, which had to buy back the vouchers to keep them off the market.

It seems people all over Britain and Europe had Hoovers in attics, Hoovers in basements, Hoovers in closets and dark corners. The value of the vouchers far exceed the cost of a new Hoover. The whole contingent who dreamed up the scheme, led by my HR nemesis, was fired.

I wonder who the mergers and acquisitions do benefit. My little note acceptor company had grown to four hundred employees when I left, well over three hundred of them on the factory floor, making pc boards. Eventually Maytag outsourced the manufacture overseas and sold what remained of the little company to our chief competitor, Mars. The candy bar company, privately held. 

One day the new bosses walked into the plant, ordered all lockers and desks emptied, everyone was fired. Good deeds and bad deeds don’t amount to much then. Maytag overextended itself and was swallowed up by Whirlpool. I felt worst for all who lost their jobs. My little company, as well as Newton, Iowa.



Probably a bag of candy on the desk.
Probably the very shirt I wore the day I crashed into the future president of Maytag, International.

28 comments:

  1. Your stories about your jobs are so interesting. It is good that you are recording them for your granddaughters to read too.

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  2. Why I despise Corporations ,in a nutshell.
    Jane x

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  3. Now I know why the appliance salespeople say that Maytag and Whirlpool are the same thing. I had a Magic Chef refrigerator in my first house. It was very nice. As soon as I read about the airline voucher scheme, I knew it would be someone's downfall. I used to know someone who worked on the coin boxes for car washes. I don't know how they operate now, but people used to be able to break into them and did so on a regular basis.

    Love,
    Janie

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  4. I believe in good business practice, but corporations too often look at the short term and corporate politics can be far nastier than politics in the public sector. I always enjoy hearing of a high highfalutin corporate dumbbell taking a fall.

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  5. Oh my gosh! All those poor people who lost their jobs! I see why my son-in-law is hating corporate.

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  6. Interesting story to read and why Maytag wanted to acquire Magic Chef. Very fascinating how "big business" can work. You certainly have had a wide assortment of places you've worked with great stories to share with us :)

    betty


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  7. Love that smile. Loathe most corporations and am very, very glad that the division president got his just desserts. Eventually.

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  8. Your story had me thinking of parts of my career. I do believe there is certain working group size (could depend on the type of work) that should not be exceeded because management loses touch with the workers. Also, business goes in cycles. There is the business idea du jour. One time it's grow big diversify, then it's remove the fat and get focused. I think it's the corporate lawyers making money on each transaction no matter which business trend.

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  9. It's awful to hear of companies being swallowed up by larger ones, not because of the excellent products, but because of the extended market and earnings which is what the larger company wants, then in turn that larger company meets the same fate. Over and over.
    Sad to think of all the work you put in building up that workforce only to all be fired en-masse.
    My vacuum is a Hoover, a handy-dandy little worker that does his job extremely well.

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  10. I remember the Hoover voucher disaster. They tried all sorts of tricks. If you lived in London you were offered a flight from Scotland etc. We had a voucher and were offered a flight at a few days notice. I was amazed to be offered anything but had to say no as I was pregnant at the time. Whoever thought up that marketing strategy must have been "away with the fairies" as we say here.

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  11. Hari OM
    The crime of corporation... (shudders and signs off).... YAM xx

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  12. What a gorgeous smile! Hmmm, wonder if that's why my Dad would never allow a Hoover in his home.

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  13. I have a friend who bought one just for the airline ticket. I thought about it, then I thought that it was a bit too good to be true. I bought a Dyson instead (direct from our local hero) at the cost of a return ticket to New York. Dyson trounced Hoover in the courts before he broke through to the U.S. market.

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  14. What a great photo! Just love it!

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  15. Your post is wonderful and informative and interesting -- as well as fun to read! Brought back lots of memories, too. Such as remembering how in those days when we were young drivers long ago, buying 'a dollars worth'! And I well remember the vouchers scheme -- just desserts, it turns out! Except of course for the thousands of people caught in the middle with no jobs and a bleak future. We used to have a Hoover, but now our 'hoover' is a Dyson!

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  16. Employees are collateral damage .... Big corporations have no heart; it's all about the bottom line. We had a Hoover once...piece of garbage.

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  17. Great picture and great story.... (but a sad one).... The little community hospital I worked for was "acquired" by Ohio Health about 3 years ago. We all know what's going to happen there now. And yes... I remember the day a dress code was put in place... I think the admitting office decided to go with "uniforms" (blazer, skirt/slacks, shirt... all dressed alike from then on).... You have such sharp memories of your past - much better than reading the "official" reports.

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    1. I was so angry I went out and bought 2 men's suits, white shirts, ties, wing tips and men's socks, and dared them to enforce their women's dress code on me. I wore my beautiful, flapping, tan suede trench coat. I looked like a gangster.

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  18. Great photograph!
    I often wondered about the idiot who thought up that promotion...your post explains all! And mergers take place so that the company expands and those on the board meet their 'targets' which 'entitle' them to more share options which they will then pursue short term policies to increase their value and then cash them in as they take their golden handshake to make room for yet another 'entitled' idiot from the management caste.

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    1. The last year I was there I was eligible for options. I was slid out the door in October, two plus months short of exercising one.

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  19. My Joanne - you were a good looker back then!

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  20. It sounds so typical, our daughter worked for a company that we acquired by another, then another and then another. Each time it was acquired things got stranger and stranger, she eventually left. Did you know the English call vacuuming hovering?

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  21. love your stories. big bosses don't care about how their decisions affect the people who do the actual work.

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  22. How exhausting! an elaborate game playes by companies that could care less about the people who build the products. Glad you were out the door before it all fell down.

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  23. Most of Europe no longer hoover anymore; we now Dyson !

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  24. Every time I hear or read a workplace horror story I count my blessings that I was able to retire when my workplace turned into a divisive, mean, unhealthy place. In retirement it's only the spouse who annoys me and that's only once in a while.

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