Friday, July 22, 2011

Is Mustard a Dressing or a Condiment?

I once worked for a family-owned catering/gift company who also sold fresh floral arrangements.  They had a beautiful kitchen and floral room, a sizeable warehouse, a fleet of vans for delivery service and a posh wine shop in Uptown.  I was regularly served catered lunch, asked to taste cookies and confections for feedback and usually had fresh flowers on my desk—it was like I was dating my job.

One of my favorite “tasks” was when it was time to design our annual Christmas catalog, the head gift designer would have all of our new offerings displayed and I would get to name the gifts and write the catalog captions for each one.  Similarly, when they would debut new floral arrangements, I would get to name and caption them as well.  As the Director of Customer Service, I got to train and supervise our call center employees, handle e-commerce, maintain aspects of the website and resolve any shipping/service issues.  I was promoted twice within a surprisingly short amount of time and had my own office—things seemed to be on the fast track to being very good.  I loved my job.

Christmas was our bread and butter.  They put out an annual catalog and would sell the hell out of turkeys, hams, cookies, cakes, wine, cheese and tons of other treats and confections.  Our full-time staff of approximately 40 grew to, I think, about 200 from October to January, to help handle the huge inflow of holiday orders.  January through September had much slower, but steady, business with small peak holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, but those were really floral holidays.  From the week after Thanksgiving through the week of Christmas, we had no personal life.  We all worked 12+ hour days with no breaks, and we sometimes had to work six and even seven day weeks.  That was the one thing that really got me down and I didn’t look forward to the holiday season while working there.  Otherwise, things were pretty good in the beginning.

As time went on, I learned the lesson about “not all that glitters is gold.”  The company was run by two brothers, third-generation owners, and my last name was not the same as theirs.  Their grandparents struggled and spent their lives building the business, and their parents saw how hard the grandparents worked to build it and carried on the business.  It was then handed down to their children, my bosses, who grew up with the family business thriving and they enjoyed the fruits of its success, never having to experience the struggles of their parents or grandparents.

These guys seemingly never had a real problem in their life.  One day I was walking by one of their offices and I noticed they were red-faced and arguing.  They stopped me, “Julie!  Is mustard a dressing or a condiment?”  Once I said that it was a condiment, they closed the office door in my face.  This is the kind of crap they had to deal with when they came to work—each other’s stupidity.

They once had a Vice President that did all of the dirty work, kept things running smoothly and did a good job maintaining employee morale for over ten years.  He was an amazing man and I admired him so.  I had the pleasure of working with him the first year I was with the company.  With him there, the brothers could be off golfing, lunching and vacationing—things they should definitely be doing instead of learning how to properly run their business in case, say, the Vice President no longer wished to do so, right?  They thought that if they paid the VP enough money, he would work there forever and let them treat him poorly.  This is not how things panned out.

There is an old rule, “The first generation starts a business. The second generation runs it. And the third generation ruins it."  I have read that only around 15% of family-owned businesses survive the third generation, and this is greatly due to a lack of succession planning.  Both brothers went to business school but lacked essential skills and managerial experience, so they were ill prepared for the job.

When the VP resigned, things went to hell.  The brothers [gasp!] had to come to “work” again!  With their lack of business sense and managerial skills, one could imagine how things changed.  One of the biggest mistakes they made was that what they called “marketing” was really sending flyers to their current customer distribution list.  They never prospected or advertised to gain new clients—they simply kept fishing from the same old hole they had for years.  And most of the clients that they still had were retired and loyal to the company because they knew the brothers’ parents and/or grandparents.  These customers were completely spoiled and would complain if one apple (out of two dozen ordered) had a bruise and would demand they get a fresh batch sent—and the brothers would have me do it!  And they could not seem to understand why the company was not making money…

Business hadn’t been doing very well since the economy began its big downturn following 9/11, but after the VP left, things got even worse.  Morale plummeted, staff began leaving and my job got less and less fun.  They had me doing aspects of the former VP’s job but for ¼ of the pay.  Nice…

I came in to work on December 26, 2007, for a mandatory company meeting at 8 a.m., where the brothers announced to us that they were closing their kitchen and we would no longer offer catering services.  They had the kitchen staff in earlier that morning to let them know.  Just like that.  They asked them to come in to work the morning after Christmas to tell them that they no longer had jobs and to go home.  This was the day I knew I needed out.  If they would do this to people who had worked there for nearly 20 years, I knew they would do it to any of the rest of us, at anytime, and without warning.

It took me eight months of searching to break up with the brothers, and they barely reacted when I handed them my letter of resignation.  About a year after I left, they also closed their wine store, the floral department and they stopped their delivery service.  There are less than ten full-time employees left, and I include the owners and their wives in that total.  I truly don't know how they are still in business.

For years, I was proud to say that I worked for a family-owned business, and I guess what happened here is an example of a risk you take when you decide to work for a small company.  I got to know several great people with whom I am still in contact, and I feel fortunate for that.  And I am grateful that I got the hell out of there, seemingly just in the nick of time…

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