Monday, August 18, 2014

Adolphe Sax, business owner

Adolphe Sax (at left, playing horn) did so much more than invent the saxophone. He invented dozens of instruments, including horns with a dozen bells. He founded the factory that made instruments for buyers worldwide (the letter below is addressed to M. Selmer, of the US's Selmer instrument company). It was fun to discover him at the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels earlier this summer, a place I never expected to find a corporate history on display.

In fact, Sax did so well that people sued him for patent infringement, to the point where he twice declared bankruptcy. Today, who can say which party was right? 

What I like best is that Sax, who lived from 1814 to 1894, called himself a "fabricant inventeur," or maker-inventor. If that description fits your organization's CEO, it's a good one to highlight in your corporate storytelling. 





Monday, August 11, 2014

Berry Plastics: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate History.net

In 1967, Imperial Plastics was established in Evansville, Indiana, where the company is still headquartered. After its acquisition by Jack Berry, Sr., in 1983, the company expanded via the acquisition of more than 30 related businesses. Today Berry is one of the largest plastics packaging producers in the world, with 80-odd manufacturing plants employing more than 25,000 people. Its annual sales top $5 billion.  Clients include Walmart, Target, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Procter & Gamble. The company went public in 2012. Berry Plastic’s main About Us page is here.

OVERALL GRADE: D

Products/Services: D
The main About Us page, Corporate, offers the briefest of summaries: when the company was founded and what its goals were and are. Because the text is so short, the oddity of the final sentence stands out: “Our impressive list of customers is evidence of our commitment to provide, on a world-wide scale.” To provide what? Our Commandment 9 of About Us pages is, “Worship clarity.” Small errors suggest lack of attention to more important points.

The Corporate page is not enticing: little text, no images. Why not liven it up with a collage of images such as appears on the Products page? Or some of the material in well-thought-out brochures such as this one? Or the information on the Investors page? In a printed book, repetition is boring. On the web, it’s a necessity, since many visitors will jump unpredictably from one page to another.

The News page consists of a list of press releases, but buried among them are mentions of several awards. A separate Awards page would make these more impressive and easier to find.

The introduction to the Company History page is confusing: it says Berry welcomes the opportunity “to share information regarding our success stories and continued support of our local communities and environment.” Why say this if there are no pages on the site that offer such stories? And if there are such pages, why not link to them here?

The same page has a timeline that’s of manageable length, because it highlights only major events. So far, so good. But it’s basically a list of acquisitions, so it falls rather flat as corporate storytelling. In addition, some entries need to be rewritten for a general audience: what does “Entered the closure market” mean? Here, too, images of Berry products or vintage ads would make the page much more enticing.

Personality: E
Our Commandment 3 of About Us pages is, “Reveal thy personality.” There is no personality here. Jack Berry, Sr., is mentioned in three timeline entries, but we’re given no sense of him as a person or a CEO. The bio of Jonathan Rich, the current CEO, is buried under Investors (top menu) / Corporate Governance (side menu) / Management (link near top center). Once we found his bio, it was boilerplate fare, without a single quote from Rich or any indication of his management goals. Nor are there any quotes from division managers or employees to create a sense of the company’s personality.

Accessibility: C
The Contact page is standard: mailing address, telephone, and an online form. Including the names of the heads of specific departments would give a sense that Berry Plastic’s employees really do want to hear from us.

TAKEAWAY
If you’re too close to your site to evaluate it, have an outsider check whether you’re making the best use of your content to express your personality, show off your products, and stay in touch with your customers.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Real-Life Success Lessons


Here's a Q&A between CorporateHistory.net President Marian Calabro and Scott S. Smith, author of Extraordinary People: Real Life Lessons on What It Takes to Achieve Success.


Marian writes: Recently, I was contacted by a fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, freelance business journalist Scott S. Smith, who has interviewed many top CEOs, including Bill Gates, Meg Whitman, Michael Dell, Lee Iacocca, Larry Ellison and dozens of others. He has had 1,200 articles published and has distilled what he’s learned in a new book, Extraordinary People: Real Life Lessons on What It Takes to Achieve Success (available on Amazon; sample chapter at www.ExtraordinaryPeopleBook.com). Since I’m a firm believer in viewing business history through the lens of leadership, I was eager to learn more about Scott’s venture.  

Marian: You mentioned that many executives you’ve interviewed don’t read business books anymore. What’s going on?            

Scott: One thing you learn from reading history is that Americans used to read a lot—books, newspapers, magazines—and it’s alarming how few currently read anything more substantial than emails or Facebook posts. Executives tell me that they scan business stories, but many I’ve interviewed can’t even name a business book they’ve recently read because they’re too busy. Our national attention span is shortening to the point that it really endangers society. A couple of decades ago I would get 5,000 word assignments; now, I’m really pushing the limit of readers’ interest at 1,250 words in my columns about leadership and success for Investor’s Business Daily.


Marian: The crux of your subject seems to be this: What do high-achievers have in common? Which of their attitudes and actions can be emulated to help any career? Your book addresses this in readably short chapters.


Scott: Yes, the chapters range from 1,800 to 3,500 words, and I think part of the interest in these figures comes from being able not just to learn useful lessons, but to gain an appreciation of someone they’ve heard of, but don’t really know much about.


Marian: The book includes both contemporary business leaders and famous people past and present in a wide variety of fields. Why include someone like Founding Father Gouverneur Morris? Most people don’t know who he was. Isn’t he far removed from today’s corporate challenges?


Scott: I’ve really become passionate about the importance of understanding American and world history—and I include corporate history for employees. First, there’s a reason medical doctors and other specialties have to get an undergraduate degree first: we don’t want citizens with such narrow technical education that they have no interest in the broader issues of society. Even those with advanced degrees often lack much understanding of what’s happening beyond their own field.


Marian: On the other hand, there has been a boomlet in the popularity of biographies, especially the Founders.


Scott: Indeed. It’s only when you really dig into our roots that you gain an awesome respect for what they did. Yes, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, all of them, were imperfect human beings, but that makes their achievement—the first enduring democracy in history—even more impressive. One of the great ones was Morris, who essentially wrote the Constitution. A successful democracy requires hard work from its citizens—and anyone who thinks politics is hopelessly corrupt isn’t aware of how many times the country has come back from the brink of what one party or another thought was disaster. You have a choice—you can become informed and get involved or you can let people who disagree with you have the advantage in the outcome. History puts everything today in perspective and no matter what aspect you want to study—last year’s annual report, the latest biography on Robert E. Lee, or the proclamations of Cyrus the Great—you have your mind expanded. So I’m on a mission to encourage people to read any kind of history—I think they’ll get hooked.


Marian: Amen to that. Let’s take someone else from the past, Simon Bolivar. What can leaders today learn from him?


Scott: There are a couple of reasons every American should know about him. First of all, he liberated six countries: Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, and Bolivia, which is named after him. As citizens of the world in a country with 17% of the population that is Hispanic, we should know this. How would we feel if we went to Latin America and the people we were doing business with had never heard of George Washington? If you want to build rapport with your partners, you need to know the basics of their culture, including their history. Second, Bolivar is the absolute best example of someone who achieved great things against all odds by always bouncing back after disaster. He also shows what can be accomplished with boldness and imagination—his trek over the Andes in the middle of winter remains the greatest military surprise in the history of the Western Hemisphere. He was also an effective speaker and a writer, with public letters that were widely read. He wasn’t great at speaking at first, but he learned, as anyone can.


Marian:  Lest people get the wrong impression, you do write about a number of women.


Scott: A third are women and I would have included more, but ran out of space—I’m saving them for a sequel! One of my favorites is Martha Harper and almost no one has ever heard of her, but she invented franchising. She was born poor and became a domestic servant. Along the way, she learned about a special formula to make hair lush and dressed the hair of the woman she worked for. She told her friends and soon she had a thriving side business and opened the first beauty salon in Rochester, N.Y., in 1888. She realized she could help women become financially independent by letting them copy her first salon and eventually she had 500 under franchise terms.


Marian: So why haven’t we heard of her?


Scott: I write a lot of stories about leaders we should know, but our poor formal education and narrow reading habits deprive us of their inspiration. I come away from every profile just amazed at what I’ve learned. The bigger questions that are related are, why do most startups fail and why are most companies so poorly run, if we really know so much about good management? Within 10 years of opening, over 90% of businesses close. I think everyone who is a line employee or middle manager is painfully aware that corporate priorities are not really them or the customers—just look at the pay and perks for top management.


Marian: Jim Collins and others have written books on the difference between the No. 1 and the No. 2 companies in different industries. The difference rarely involves better technical skills. It comes down to the corporate culture.


Scott: Yes—there has to be a deeply embedded belief that the company has an important mission, and everyone has to be completely dedicated to that. It helps to look at the great companies of the past because you can learn from their example. I’d say it actually is better to look at those outside your industry because familiarity blinds us.


Marian: One of the recent top CEOs in your book is Reed Hastings of Netflix. What did you learn from him?


Scott: It’s easy to forget, with its recent success, that not long ago Netflix almost got killed by one of his strategic decisions. I talked with him in 2009 and by July of the next year the stock had hit $305. Then he announced in a blog that he was spinning off the DVD mail order service from the movie streaming business and customers would need to pay for separate subscriptions. By November, the stock was at $64. His blog got 39,000 comments, compared with the next most-discussed post that had 200. Over 800,000 cancelled their subscriptions. Few CEOs would survive that kind of disaster, but Netflix is thriving again. He is a great example of being able to recover by being genuinely humble and learning from mistakes. Even more interestingly, Netflix has an almost unique culture in which corporate employees—not those working at call centers—have a very flexible schedule. As long as they meet their goals, they can take as much personal or vacation time as they want.


Marian: Nice. Of course, it’s August and most of our counterparts in Europe are taking the whole month off, fully paid. But here we are in the United States, working. One last question: Why do a few leaders, who are otherwise successful, seem to sabotage themselves? Often they threaten their company’s success along the way.


Scott: Watching HBO’s recent series In Treatment can illuminate that point, as you see really smart people with big blinders fail to come to grips with their problems. You wonder why they can’t see themselves more objectively—as if we, the viewers, can really see ourselves. So biography and history let us see how someone great dealt with challenges—the enduring human, political, or business problems. We need inspirational role models and information to help us see our own situations more objectively and imagine better solutions.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Gerber Life: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate History.net

Gerber Life Insurance Company specializes in juvenile life insurance (term life, accident, college plans, etc.). Formed in 1967 as a subsidiary of Gerber Products (which has been owned by Nestle since 2007), Gerber Life today has nearly 3 million policies in force with a total value of $33 billion. Its headquarters is in White Plains, New York. The main About Us page is here. (For those following @CorpHist Twitter feed, the Gerber Baby is a girl who grew up to be a novelist: read all about her here. We believe she's the best rep for Gerber Life's corporate history, per below.)

OVERALL GRADE: C

Products/Services: C
The main About Us page (Meet Gerber Life Insurance Company) states the company’s purpose in its first line: “Since 1967, Gerber Life Insurance Company has provided quality life insurance, especially for young families on a limited budget.” It goes on to elaborate, and includes an image of a family plus a few statistics about the amount and geographical areas covered. All this is good, but the page could be much improved by adding links within the text to pages such as Products and Customer Service.

Another issue: there are two awards at the foot of Meet Gerber Life Insurance Company, with icons (bravo!) —but the awards date from 2009 and 2012. Are these the latest awards that can be mustered, or is this a case of not keeping the site updated, per our Commandment 10 of About Us pages (“Remember to keep holy the updates”)?

Personality: B
The personality of Gerber Life shines through most in the page that’s misleadingly labeled About the Gerber Baby. It turns out to be corporate history told with charming personal anecdotes about the founding of Gerber Baby Food, soon followed by the search for the perfect baby face to use in advertising. This page ought to be mentioned and linked to on the main About Us page: it’s a great introduction to Gerber. Its final paragraph, “Another way to help baby,” sketches the establishment of Gerber Life.

If this page hadn’t been so misleadingly labeled or had been linked to within the text of the main About Us page, we would have given Gerber Life an “A” for personality.

Accessibility: D
The Contact pages on this site are confusing. The link in the header takes us to a page with phone, email, and mailing addresses (U.S. and Canada). It has a link to a standard online form for submitting email. The Contact page’s sidebar has a link to Customer Service, which repeats much of the information and links back to the Contact Us page, with the promise that we’ll find “A directory of customer service phone numbers and payment addresses.” We don’t. These pages should be combined and simplified. Our Commandment 8 of About Us pages is, “Remember to make yourself and your organization easily accessible.” Insurance companies have a reputation for being difficult to deal with; special care should be taken not to confirm that impression.

TAKEAWAY
Look through your whole site for great material, and make sure it’s easy to find, either by repeating it on the main About Us page or by adding links to it.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; CorporateHistory.net has no ties to this company.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Happy 100th, A. J. Hastings!

Anyone remember small-town stationery stores? Amherst, Mass., has one that's alive, well, and celebrating 100 years. I shop at A. J. Hastings every time I visit Amherst, a home away from home, and my recent trip happily coincided with Hastings' centennial. The store is actually older, but the Hastings family bought it in 1914 and has run it since then--it's a third-generation family business.

The store's celebration included home-baked chocolate cake, display cases with artifacts, streamers across the windows, and a guest book to sign -- proof that it doesn't take much money to commemorate an important business anniversary. 

A. J. Hastings (which is not to be confused with our dear old client A. W. Hastings in Enfield, CT) sells merchandise for UMass, Amherst College and other five-towns institutions, art supplies, fun things for kids, and greeting cards in addition to office supplies. You have to love a store that has a section of sympathy cards for the loss of pets. 

Also, the map section is superb. I found a New York City subway map here that I couldn't find in Manhattan because we have no independent bookstores with maps anymore. A friend in Amherst told me that just before leaving for a trip to Russia, he found a map of Russia in stock, right in his hometown store ... and it was in Russian, which is what he wanted.

The Pioneer Valley has a Staples, sure, but Hastings is the real thing. It aptly calls itself "a small store with big ideals." That's good company storytelling.

Believe it or not, Amherst still has a typewriter store as well...but that's a story for another day.