It wasn't that chairman Ernest Marks thought his employees were boors. They didn't suck their fingers after meals, at least not in public. They knew better than to pick up the fingerbowl and drink the water down. But as his convention-contracting business, Concept Industries Inc., climbed to the $30-million mark, more employees were out representing the company in public, meeting potential clients at trade shows, or entertaining customers over a dinner table. "A little more polish," he decided, "couldn't hurt."
Which was why Marks invited Wayne and Linda Phillips, founders of The Executive Etiquette Co., to present their three-hour "refresher course in the fine points of civility."
"Etiquette isn't stuffy," Wayne insists. "It comes from the French for 'ticket' -- and it may well provide you with the ticket for more success, even for more profits."
"You shouldn't have to worry, 'What is this utensil for,' when you're out entertaining a client," Linda adds. "The key to everything is consideration for others."
A generation ago, the Phillipses admit, people would have learned appropriate social decorum at their parents' dinner table. "But this is a new generation -- they grew up eating at McDonald's and Burger King. They're very bright, but they can get very uncomfortable if all of a sudden the boss asks them to take a client out to lunch."
From one person's discomfort comes another's business plan.Two years ago, when they got the idea for The Executive Etiquette Co., Wayne was teaching curriculum development at Bridgewater (Mass.) State College. Linda was working in training for C.B.I. Laboratories Inc., a supplier of private-label cosmetics to salons and department stores. But as they researched the history of etiquette -- poring over Emily Post and Miss Manners, jetting over to England for a private tutorial with the directress of a London finishing school -- they realized that what had begun as "something we could do when we retire" had far bigger potential. Now they teach regular seminars at $1,350 a session, and dream of franchising, or setting up a consulting-training program on the Color Me Beautiful Inc. model.
Teaching the class at Concepts, the two of them certainly look to the manner born. Linda sits at the head of the narrow conference table, back straight, hands neatly folded on her lap. Wayne stands at her back, next to the credenza groaning under the unopened bottles of wine and vintage port, visual aids for his discussion of the rituals of wine that ends their class.
Table manners come first, however.
None of the men and women around the conference table take notes, but they are as intrigued as their boss. Some of the rules -- don't eat your neighbor's salad; don't talk with your mouth full; don't pick your teeth in public -- seem painfully obvious. But others are surprising. Who knew that it is de rigueur to eat asparagus with your fingers? That chicken always demands a knife and fork? Or that it's perfectly proper to drink the liquid inside an oyster's half shell?
"Maybe we'd have been $10 million bigger if we had been doing this stuff all along," chairman Marks jokes.