UPDATE: I had meant to link "that Smith character " to his Free From Editors Blog. Only fair, considering all the traffic he is sending here. Obviously fixed now. Thanks Jim!
It was one day in October, 2005, when the publisher for the Flint Journal called my desk phone and asked me to come up to his office...
By that time, I had been the Circulation Manager (CM) for a little over 4 and a half years. As CM, I was second-in-command in the department, and the Circulation Director (CD) I worked for was the finest gentleman and brightest administrator I have ever had the pleasure of calling boss. As I look back on it, anything I did right I owe in part to his leadership and mentoring. I also might add that I had (and still have) the greatest respect and similar warm fuzzies for this publisher. They demanded nothing short of your absolute best, and held you accountable, but both did it in such a way that inspired loyalty and desire to give them nothing less. Both of these fine gentlemen retired just prior to Flint's conversion to a 3-day publication in June, 2009. Now as CM, I had been given full reigns over leading the distribution and customer service efforts of the department. Exceptional customer service is a total team effort, and I couldn't be more proud of the dedication and professionalism of that team. We must have done "OK", based on the findings from MORI, an independent market research company, who stated they were "blown away" by our customer's responses in rating satisfaction levels. In fact, this company stated we ranked a very close #2 in customer service out of all the newspapers they researched across the country.
...Long story short(ish), I was offered a promotion to CD, as my boss was being moved upstairs into an expanded building-wide administrative role. I remember counting in my head the 5 other CDs I had worked for up to that point and quickly realized (not counting my immediate predecessor) that the job "life span" of those CDs was a very short few years. While I can't say that I knew the severity and speed with which the business would melt down, I did recognize treacherous waters were ahead, but I had confidence in my abilities, coupled with my belief that when the time came for my departure, the company would reward my efforts for leading the vanguard charge up the hill. So like a dummy, I accepted.
Reader's digest version of my tenure as CD.
2006 Publisher mandate: Grow circulation and do it now!
Circulation response: In 2006, daily and Sunday home delivery averages realized year-over-year gains, reversing decade-long trend of negative growth. 2006 was the second year in a row of daily home delivery growth. In Flint.
2007 Publisher mandate: Ad revenue is tanking, so you need to re-invent circulation and slash expenses now!
Circulation response: Saved almost $350,000 (not including salaries, wages, and commissions) during 2007 and doubled again the following year. Revenue growth and expense savings led to more than doubling the Circulation contribution margin (from 15.7% to 40%) over 3 years.
2008 Publisher mandate: The owners have weighed in. Build a 3-day and a 2-day model from the ground up - with no historical data or models to guide you. I need a complete revenue and expense budget, complete with a departmental re-structure, subscription pricing, new trucking and distribution costs. Do it without help to retain secrecy so that Smith character doesn't get wind. Oh, and have it on my desk next Monday.
My response: Well, except for the department re-structure, you've seen the rest. It was pretty much to a "T" what I put together over that weekend.
As for the departmental re-structure, I was originally given no goals for FTE absorption. I can't remember the exact number I submitted, but it was something like an absorption of 3 full time positions. I felt like this would make us as skinny as possible while still being able to achieve the levels of customer service we had always demanded. I plead guilty to trying to save as many full time positions as possible.
The publisher was not happy. "If you were starting a distribution department from scratch, you wouldn't submit THIS plan!," he said.
I agreed, and responded, "these aren't FTEs on a spreadsheet to me. They are my friends."
He slid the folder back to me and simply said "re-do it. This time do it with part time positions."
Fast forward to March, 2009. I was charged with calling in the full time staff of district managers individually to communicate their future lay off date and present them with their separation papers. I originally balked and told my boss that I wouldn't do it.
"I grew up with these people. They're my friends".
My boss empathized with me and I knew he felt the same way. He told me that my refusal wouldn't stop this from happening, and all it would accomplish would be a pre-mature end to my career while they found someone else to swing the axe. "Besides," he stated. "It is better they hear this news from someone who cares about them."
I grabbed onto that last bit of advice like a lifeline. It felt almost bearable believing my motives were somehow altruistic and not selfish job preservation. When I was alone that night, I cried like a baby.
Fast Forward to
June, 2009: Daily delivery discontinued and the 3-day delivery of the Flint Journal was launched. By this time, the publisher and most of the rest of the other executives I had worked elbow-to-elbow with over the last few tumultuous years were gone. "It's time I tried something else," they would say. One at a time through the door, and heck, there was a cake each time! Of course, I know they quietly received the enhanced executive buyout, and I don't care if you don't agree with me - it was well deserved. If you don't understand why I believe this, then I failed in my explanation above.
September, 2009: All the full-time DMs were gone by this time, except for the few taking the part time positions. "By the way, why am I being ignored by the new publisher? All these new faces meeting upstairs secretly, and me with no invitation? Last I knew, I was the CD. I wonder what's up?" I never loved meetings anyway, so I poured my energies into making this new reduced model actually work.
It was one day in late January, 2010, when the new publisher for the Flint Journal called my desk phone and asked me to come up to his office...
I liked his dad's call better. I'm curious to know if any other severed employees from the director ranks in this latest round were demoted without their knowledge - without any communication (neither verbal or official) so the company could avoid the executive buyout (think "original buyout offer made company-wide, with several other "kisses")... or am I still the only one who's desk and red stapler were simply moved to the basement before the axe fell.
To be continued...