It happened again and again," Linda Paresky remembers. "It still happens. Someone will say, 'My sister works for you,' and I won't know her. You realize then that you don't know everyone's name anymore, and you feel kind of terrible.It used to be a nice cozy family, and now it isn't."
Don't misunderstand. Paresky is not bemoaning her fate. Her company, Crimson Travel Service Inc., has done quite nicely since she and her husband, David, founded it some 21 years ago in Cambridge, Mass. From the two of them and one office, it has grown to more than 550 employees and 28 offices, while sales have risen from $750,000 in its first year to more than $150 million this year.
But, as we all know, growth has its price. What concerns Paresky, and many other founders of growing companies, is the gradual erosion of (in her words) the "web of connectedness" that binds a company together and allows it to prosper. Beyond that, they fear they are becoming too far removed from the day-to-day operation of the business. After all, if you don't know your employees, do you really know your company? Do you hear what you need to hear? More important, perhaps, do your employees hear what they need to hear?
The problem is hardly a new one. Even J. P. Morgan Sr. recognized it, and sought to address it by establishing an open-door policy at his bank. In theory, anyone could approach him; he sat behind glass walls in a back room. The trouble was that he sat there seldom and, when he did, it was in a concentration so deep God Himself would have had trouble getting his attention.
It would be nice to report that technology has created newer and better ways to deal with communications than Morgan's open door. It hasn't. Granted, you can open your door a little wider these days, and to more people, but you still have to be present and available. James Treybig of Tandem Computers Inc., for example, appears on a monthly television program broadcast over the company's in-house TV station; employees around the world watch the show and call in their questions and comments. In a similar vein, Tom Monaghan of Domino's Pizza Inc. maintains toll-free numbers for employees. He also has a monthly "call-in," during which he listens to suggestions and fields complaints for a couple of hours. What makes these systems work, however, is not the high-tech paraphernalia, but the men.
Moreover, you really don't need technology to communicate with employees, even if they are spread out across the land. Many chief executive officers have found ways to do it using techniques as old as the tin lunch pail. What works depends largely on them.
For Robert Darvin, of Scandinavian Design Inc., it's the suggestion box. He distributes special stationery to every employee at his 21-year-old retail furniture company -- the warehouse workers, the executives at corporate headquarters in Natick, Mass., the salespeople in the 70 stores throughout the northeastern United States and in Hawaii. The stationery is intended for one purpose: communicating with the boss. And everyone is expected to use it. "It's a way for people to vent their frustrations," explains Darvin, "say, for instance, if they aren't getting enough of some item that's in big demand. Of course, that's good news, too, in a way -- but you get the idea."
Darvin does not stop there. In an effort to move information the other way, Scandinavian Design has a pair of newsletters -- one bimonthly, the other quarterly. And, lest these fail to do the trick, Darvin spends a fair amount of his own time with employees. Last year, for example, he took about one-fourth of them to Europe. "It wasn't easy," he recalls. "I became a furniture-factory and furniture-design tour guide. But, my God, there were kids we took, kids from the warehouse, who had never been out of their hometown before. It was wonderful to be able to give them the experience."
Darvin's methods are tame, however, compared with those of Arthur E. Morrissette, president and founder of Interstate Van Lines Inc., a $30-million-a-year moving and storage company in Springfield, Va. True, Morrissette puts out a newsletter, called Under the Top Hat -- nothing unusual there. But his principal media are the training session and the sing-along.
The training session is a daily affair, running from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., during which key managers address the movers and packers on different aspects of the business. The sing-along happens once every couple of weeks. All of the employees meet in the convention hall, under strict orders to mingle, so that they won't think of themselves as separate camps. It's a time to emphasize the team, Morrissette explains, and to recognize individual achievement with awards, cash prizes, and points toward evaluations. It's also a time for singing patriotic songs, not to mention the company anthem:
Work that you do
Is more than just a job.
It's important to keep
A smile on your face.
You are the one
The shipper comes to trust.
You are the image of Interstate.
It must be quite a scene -- more than 200 people sitting around at eight o'clock in the morning belting out those lyrics. But somehow Morrissette manages to pull it off. "We've got a lot of talent here that doesn't show up on the application form," he says. "Why, people leave the meeting humming our song." Evidently, they do more than hum: in 1985 Interstate Van Lines had the highest profit ratio in its industry.
What Darvin does with the suggestion box, and Morrissette with the sing-along, Stew Leonard does with that old staple of in-house communications, the newsletter. Leonard is the founder of an $80-million, 500-employee grocery store and dairy in Norwalk, Conn., renowned as the "Disneyland of dairy stores." Its publication is called Stew's News. Thirty to 50 pages long, with more photos than text, it appears monthly and carries as much need-to-know information as an oversize bulletin board, as much nice-to-know information as a high school yearbook, and as much ought-to-know information as a modest textbook on store management. It is, quite simply, the last word in newsletters.
It is also a companywide effort. Stew Leonard Jr., the company president, publishes it; his brother and sisters and father often lend a hand. But anyone in the company can write for it, edit it, or make suggestions to improve it, and practically everyone has. There are about 40 names on the masthead, which changes frequently, and -- except for the full-time editor -- all are volunteers: cashiers, baker's assistants, salad bar managers, and on and on. The News aims at total participation, and the idea for it did not come out of a PR office. It came from Mike Hughes.
Who is Mike Hughes? Turning to Stew's News First Annual Yearbook 1986, we find his photo and capsule autobiography (along with the rest of the staff's), which tell us that Mike Hughes is a square-jawed young man in aviator glasses, who is also Director of Grocery:
Born: Norwalk. Enjoys all Rocky movies. Fav. singer, song, entertainer: Lionel Richie, "Penny Lover," Bill Cosby. Fav. book, magazine: Thesaurus, TV Guide. Fav. restaurant, meal: Peppermill, lobster and filet. Most enjoyable thing won: $3 lottery. Epitaph: "I did the best I could with the hand of cards life dealt me." Hates people who lie and gossip. Admires Ed Koch, President Ronald Reagan, Joe Cappiello. Parents' advice: "Be happy!" Fears dying before he can accomplish what he wanted to do.
That's quite a lot to know about a fellow worker. But, in Stew's News, everyone gets a chance to know and be as well known as that. "It's so cool," says Stew Jr. "I mean, there's such an incredible richness of experience here. We just want people to share it."
Hughes got the idea for the newsletter four years ago, when there were approximately 200 people working at Stew Leonard's. "I had just gotten into upper management," he recalls, "and I thought it would be a good way to tie everything together. I mean, everybody has always known one another here, but the newsletter would be a way of getting us closer. Also, because people bring it home, it would involve families, too."
The first issues -- photocopied, stapled, small print-run -- were hardly a big hit. The newsletter needed a champion. He turned up in the person of Jerry Zezima, now the editor, who was working as a floor sweeper at the time. Joe Shaw, who has since died, was another man who made the newsletter the extraordinary publication it is. Shaw was an artist, a Leonard family friend who used to hang around the store in dungarees and sneakers. Stew Jr. remembers him saying, "Goddamnit, Stew, don't ever let that thing get too slick. This is for the people who work here; don't ever forget it."
Once, Stew Jr. admits, the Leonards did forget it: they hired an outside writer, a professional newspaper person. "The people who were working on the newsletter fired her," he says."They told me they didn't want her touching their newsletter."
With all its hoopla, Stew's News works. So do Arthur Morrissette's sing-alongs, Robert Darvin's stationery, Tom Monaghan's hotline, and Jim Treybig's TV show. There is a lesson in all of this, and it comes back to the "web of connectedness." The truth is that you can discover many things about a company from its communications -- what kind of industry it's in, how much it relies on salespeople, its internal politics, the sociology of its employees. But if it still has its web of connectedness, mostly what you can discover is the individual at the center of it -- the founder or CEO, or both.
"In companies that cultivate close, intimate lines of communications," says Eric Flamholtz, author of How to Make the Transition from An Entrepreneurship to a Professionally Managed Company, "you can often trace [the lines] back to the founder, his leadership style, and that, of course, goes back to his personality."
Robert Darvin, for example, recently went to Texas, and on his trip he saw some pretty necklaces for about $3 apiece. He bought one for every member of his organization. Would Robert Darvin have done this if he and his wife had children? Would Arthur Morrissette run his company with sing-alongs and training sessions if he hadn't been orphaned during the Depression?
Possibly. There's more to communications than autobiography. Still, business organizations are more intimately revealing of their founders than anyone, including the founders, often realize. And the impression they make can last.
Think of IBM.