Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Let It Snow

Christmas eve traditionally softens the hearts of employers toward their charges, and the word goes out that it's OK to leave the workplace early with the organization's best wishes for a happy holiday. No so in the cold-hearted world of government contracting in the 1960s. My workday at the McCoy Job Corps Center, as most were, was scheduled to run from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. as usual.

Karl Wagner, a former public school system superintendent who held a PhD in education, was the newly appointed center director as my second holiday season at McCoy approached. Wagner blithely let it be known to those in the headquarters building that he intended to release all personnel who were not needed for security reasons or to supervise residential living at noon on the day before Christmas.

The word got to Al Groncki the morning of the 24th. Groncki was on loan from the U.S. Forest Service to the anti-poverty agency that administered the Job Corps program. His job was to see that RCA, our employer, observed the letter of the law in meeting the provisions of its contract to operate the McCoy Center. He took his job very seriously.

"Not so fast," Groncki said. "The contract calls for all employees to work a full day on December 24. Dr. Wagner, you have no authority to release the workers early."

Wagner had an attorney and two contract specialists on his staff. He summoned them to his office and told them to find a way he could get around the contract provision. They couldn't find a thing, except one small clause that allowed the director to send employees home if a natural disaster put them in jeopardy.

Wagner looked out his office window and observed a few snowflakes falling. "Tell Groncki I'm declaring a snow emergency, and tell the department heads to send all employees who don't live at the center home immediately before this blizzard makes the roads impassable."

I just saw some snowflakes. Please, take the rest of the day off. And, Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

(A New) Home for the Holidays

Suddenly, a buyer for our long-time Utah home appeared, and he wanted to buy immediately. So, we packed up, drove through blizzards, fog, and icy roads, and will buy a new place tomorrow and become official Michiganders.

Despite a depressed economy and an almost equally depressing winter storm that arrived last night, the hardy folks who inhabit these parts seem to be in good spirits. The first fellow transplant who commented on our arrival said:

"God smiled on those who were born in Michigan. The rest of us did our best to get here as soon as we could."

Sounds like something a Texan would have dreamed up, but we're hoping it truly applies to our new home.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Revising Identities

The latest change at our best-known big-box store seems to have elicited a rising tide of apathy. Wal-Mart removed the hyphen (or the star that occupied the same space in many places) several weeks ago. I still am straining to hear the cheers for Walmart.

In these tough times, however, it might be worth taking a moment to ponder the costs of changes like this. Think of the signs, letterheads, labels, painted truck panels, and numerous other items that will have to be altered. Walmart is so big that costs in the millions are easy to visualize, and customers will pay them as the hyphen-less and star-less merchandiser subtly includes them in price increases.

Although in this case the alterations easily could be phased in to hold costs down, keep an eye on our leading discounter and see if its intrepid execs don’t start to champ at the bit and order quicker revisions than necessary to “get the project completed.” They recently were running an expensive advertising campaign just to tell us about it. And who cares? The company’s own home page showed the name all three ways just a few days ago. The star in the middle was replaced with something at the end best described as an orange doodad, making the revised name into a logo that fails to signify much of anything. One would think corporate leaders could find more important things to meddle with.

In the case of Walmart, Wal-Mart, or WalMart, it’s hard to think of a reason for the changes. The company has been making money hand over fist, and is expected to make even more as people look for places to buy cheap stuff to help cope with economic distress.

Sometimes, more than a hyphen or star is involved and there may be fairly good reasons to upgrade a corporate identity. About a year before I went to work at Allis-Chalmers in the public relations department the corporate wizards there decided they needed to create a more modern image by renaming the company and following that with the introduction of a new logo. Most of us thought they were right. The old moniker—Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company—was not inspiring. They fixed that by just knocking off the last two words, and it was a good fix.

The A-C logo was a stodgy affair that did not lend itself to a quick fix. So the image makers scrapped it and commissioned a high-priced advertising agency to develop a completely new symbol. Veteran PR men told me numerous new designs were proposed and rejected over many months before a logo finally was approved by the CEO. Although no one knew the exact costs of developing and changing to the new symbol, my associates estimated very conservatively that the total was about $250,000. In the mid-1960s, a quarter of a million was considered more than just walking around money, even in a big company.

The name change was nice, but it did little to reverse the downward spiral of the Allis-Chalmers corporate fortunes. The logo change became an embarrassment. Just a short time after the sleek new symbol had been plastered, painted, and printed all over the place, someone encountered an Associated Grocers logo, an emblem which had been around for years. It was nearly identical in color and form to the “unique” Allis-Chalmers creation that cost so much to design and adopt.