Sunday, October 6, 2019

@econbartleby and @billswindell at @TheEconomist and @NorthBayNews, respectively.


As I lamented the result from St James' Park this morning, I looked for an insightful article from The Economist. A nice part of focusing on one piece is the chance to learn about the writer. Knowing these journalists grow up and live in a certain context humanizes them. For example, I ran across a piece by Motoko Rich of the New York Times a few years ago, and was surprised to find she grew up in the small town literally next door in Sonoma County.

Philip Coggan
available at https://shrtm.nu/EYpO
So, today, it's the Bartleby columnist, Philip Coggan. He's a graduate of Sidney Sussex College, one of the constituent colleges at Cambridge University. His work at the Financial Times, authorship of several books, and awards won belies his skill, but details on his person are scarce. He has a feed at Medium, though, where his words on the loss of a pet say much. It recounts how he, his daughter, and his wife said goodbye, recalling Philip's loss of his own father as a child:
"We take small pleasures from our pets. The purr of a cat as it is stroked; the excitement of a dog as it chases a ball; the occasional bursts of madness as a cat attacks a piece of string or a dog chases its own tail. They create a rhythm to the day; the morning feed, the afternoon walk, the night-time arrival of cat on bed, eager for shared bodily warmth. And there is satisfaction from a relationship that is so uncomplicated; in return for food and affection, the dog or cat will stay around. There are no arguments; no sudden estrangements. These small joys help us through the long days and nights. My cat will no longer be the first to greet me when I open the front door. How can I not be sad that he’s gone?"
Julian Richer
available at https://shrtm.nu/o5fQ
Perhaps fitting for a financial journalist with such a sense of the personal, the piece this week is his writing on the appropriately-surnamed Julian Richer.  Richer made his fortune in peddling high-end audio equipment in the UK, from stores cheekily named "Richer Sounds." Richer's parents had both worked for Marks & Spencer (for an American, think maybe Macy's), and he entered the business at fourteen.  Coggan draws attention to Richer for the unusual fact that Richer has planned to give away much of his wealth to his employees.

When asked why, Coggan writes that Richer claims inspiration from the nearly 40-year-old book "In Search of Excellence." Richer maintains (and Coggan appears to agree) that the case studies therein illustrate that top performing companies treat both customers and employees well. "Organizations that create a culture based on fairness, honesty, and respect reap the rewards ... [t]hey attract motivated staff who are there for the long haul."

Coggan does not concede that Richer's arguments are ones for general application. He notes that Richer Sounds' turnover is a mere $157 million. That about matches the four supermarkets in the little City of Sonoma. However, he points out that the UK's high street retailers and supermarkets (M&S, Asda) have sought Richer out for his insight, suggesting lessons for the business community as a whole.

The point Coggan doesn't quite tease out (and I give him the benefit of the doubt here, for the column is a brief one), is that Richer, while not running a family business, is definitely in the family business.  His folks were retailers.  His approach to employees mirrors many family businesses in my part of semi-rural California. Bill Swindell of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat made this point five years ago, with his article "All in the Family." Swindell's quote from Marcus Benedetti (Clover-Sonoma) sums it up, as the CEO of the longtime dairy said "I look at myself as a temporary steward of something I can pass on to my children."

Over the past months and years, increasingly, navel-gazing about the raison d'ĂȘtre of companies has been a recurrent theme in the business press. The Economist has been no different. Contemporary capitalism often feels simultaneously disconnected from place while focused on individual cults of personality, provoking something of a crisis. It has not always been thus. When so many large business organizations in the United States came into existence in the Gilded Age, the personalities involved were known to one another, and the ownership thereof was often family-based, if dysfunctional.  Discomfort with family-type structures may therefore be present for good reasons -- embarrassing, emotional strife was and is common, messy details are inevitable, and nothing saps a meritocracy like nepotism.

Business is replete with family fortunes won-and-lost, the proverbial "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations." It is understandable then, that with family life often resembling nothing so much as a blooper reel, that businesses would have a long-deep discomfort with management principles that may very well be family-derived. What irony there is, then, in the unstated suggestion of Mr. Coggan's piece — that at the core of successful businesses, those impersonal machines of prosperity, is the resiliency, reciprocity, and, yes, care for one another upon which family depends?

No comments:

Post a Comment