Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Loving Business From a Distance
One of the more amusing aspects of American political debate is the reverence shown, in some quarters, for business. I can only conclude that the people who make the biggest and loudest claims of being pro-business either haven’t been in the business world themselves for a while, or have seen it only from an owner’s perspective.
(And while we’re on the subject, does anyone else agree with me that the term “pro-business” should be removed from the political debate altogether? Aside from a few strays in a few college towns, there’s no such thing as an anti-business politician in America. The debate, such as it is, turns on the question of what counterbalances, such as labor unions, worker-safety regulations, and environmental laws, should be imposed on a business’s inherent desire to make as much money as quickly as possible, regardless of consequences.)
For a few years in my early middle age I was an executive in charge of a small division for a Fortune 500 company so dysfunctional it could have served as the inspiration for Dilbert. Corporate headquarters was more than two thousand miles away, which was both a blessing and a curse.
It was a blessing because it meant we didn’t have to deal directly with the head office too often, but it was a curse because it reduced our operation to nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet. To be sure, headquarters paid plenty of pious lip service to producing a quality product, but not once, in all the time I was there, did they ever put their money where their mouth was. Instead, they engaged in a form of reality avoidance all too common in the corporate world: believing they could get a Lexus on a Yugo budget.
The product in question was a newspaper, not an automobile, and I tried in vain to make the argument that drastic cuts in quality and production would be readily obvious to the readers and advertisers. In one particularly surreal discussion, I made the point that cutting a reporter from the staff meant that about 300 stories a year wouldn’t be covered. The corporate executive I was talking to looked me in the eye and replied, “That’s the old way of thinking.”
I never did find out what new way of thinking would cause 300 news stories a year to be generated without any human being available to research and write them, and if I’d pressed the issue, the answer would probably have been something along the lines of “It’s up to you to make it happen.”
After a while, it became obvious that our operation was nothing to headquarters but numbers on a spreadsheet. Headquarters wanted costs cut and profits raised to ridiculously high levels immediately. I argued for more modest short-term profits and more reinvestment in the product to take advantage of an area that was rapidly growing. In divorce court, they would call that irreconcilable differences, and after three years I decided to leave while it was still my decision.
As it turned out, we were both wrong. This was a few years before the internet arrived, and none of us saw it coming. It essentially broke up the paper’s unique standing, which we all took for granted. That standing was what allowed headquarters to pursue a goal of squeezing the news for short-term profit and me to argue for investment in expectation of a long-term future return. Three years after I left, the company realized it couldn’t get the profits it wanted and still pay even lip service to quality. So it sold the paper to another company that cut the staff in half. It was just business.