This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

End of the Company Man

            Within a few years of going to work for the newspaper in 1972, I had more or less decided I was going to be a company man. John P. Scripps Newspapers was a good organization that valued the quality of the product, and if I couldn’t hit the top at the paper where I started, it offered me a fair chance to do so at one of its other publications.
            As matters turned out, I stayed with them for 19 years and made it to the top where I started. But just as I reached the pinnacle, the company was sold and the whole corporate culture changed — not for the better, in my view. After three years as editor, I had to admit it wasn’t the same place it had been for most of my time there, and that it was time for me to move on. I went before the decision was forced upon me.
            Even so, I still have fond memories of my time at the newspaper, and a lot of those memories relate to the great people I worked with, quite a few of whom were company men themselves.

Hitching Your Star to a Wagon

            For the benefit of readers under 40, if any, I should probably explain what a company man was. He (the term began more than a century ago when women weren’t much in the work force) went to work for one company and was loyal to it. The company in return was loyal to him, moving him as far up the corporate ladder as circumstances and his abilities warranted.
            In his worst iteration the company man could be an unquestioning stooge and lackey for a bad company’s noxious practices. But the term was more commonly benign, referring to such people as the dispatcher who was the sober, dependable, respectable face of the railroad he worked for in the small town where he lived. He either died with his boots on or retired after 40 years with a gold watch.
            The two editors who preceded me were both company men. They worked for John P. Scripps Newspapers for decades, and both of them came to our paper after working for another in the group. The three business managers during my tenure at the paper were all company men as well. They were all great guys and great professionals.

What Sense of Loyalty?

            In recent months, Santa Clara University has been sending me out to do a series of articles on alumni who are starting their own businesses — which seems to be almost all of them. They’re bright, energetic, optimistic and innovative, and a line that came up over and over in the interviews was that they wanted to start their own business.
            We certainly need innovators and entrepreneurs, and I wish them all the best. Yet I couldn’t help wondering, as I did the interviews, about the desire to start their own business. More specifically, how much of it came from a sense that it was what they were meant to do, and how much of it came from a sense of resignation — a feeling that in today’s business world there’s simply no point to working for someone else.
            Estimates vary slightly, but the average seems to be that 90 percent of new businesses fail. The people who launch those failed businesses can either try again (up to a point) or go to work for somebody else. If they do the latter, they will most likely move from job to job the rest of their lives, rather than becoming company men or women. The two-way avenue of loyalty that made the company man possible has been closed for good, and weeds are growing in the asphalt.