Monday, November 7, 2011

Phone call bookends from father and son

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...


  1. I've really missed you and was so happy to see your comment at geeeZ today (and am so honored to be on your blogroll so prominently because you know I think you are one of THE smartest and most creative bloggers anywhere) but now I'm heartsick to see why you'd taken hiatus.
    I actually hadn't seen that sign-off blog of January I've really wondered.

    I'm looking forward to your next installment but, mostly, I'm looking forward to your feeling better about all this mess.
    You deserve better. I hope you don't take off again but I sure can see why you did now.
    blessings to you, your buddy, Z

  2. Why thank you Z for those kind words. High praise from a blogger with the size of your following for sure! I expect you'll start seeing more of me again if that's ok.

  3. "if that's okay?" With your humor and creativity and good politics and character, you should be ten times bigger than my geeeeZ.
    Yes, IT'S OKAY! :-) I love that you're back! xx

  4. I was a Circulation DM & later a Mailroom/Distribution foreman with the Bay City Times/Saginaw News/Valley Publishing so I read this post with a good deal of informed interest.

    A) They asked you in 2008 to plan a 2 or 3 day week cutdown in publication and staff. I would guess that in between that time and the actual moment of coming clean with the employees (recall they LIED to us and said the early leaked reports were totally false) that they twice re-issued our lifetime job pledges.

    B) I don't know about Flint but in Bay City and Saginaw we had several meetings at our request to point out ways to trim waste, redundancy, and be more efficent. EVERY SINGLE SUGGESTION WAS IGNORED.

    C) Perhaps the upper most level of management you spoke so glowingly of was different than what was in place in Bay City & Saginaw but here the inconsistent, and ineffectual leadership deserves only contempt.

    D) Ownership was comfotable demanding accountability of middle and lower management but upper management continually was allowed to pass the buck, find scape goats, make lame excuses, and continue to make the same errors in new ways.

    I LOVED working for the newspaper. It filled me with great pride to be a part of the essential fourth estate of our poltical system but I find my many good memories and pride corrupted by the bitterness I feel at my (& my famlies) betrayal by people I trusted.

  5. Hi anonymous, thanks for the comments. Re. "A", It was late 2008 when I was told to work on the plan. As I've outlined here, it was March when DMs were informed in Flint. So, yes, I knew about it before them - but so what? It was not joyful knowledge to possess. What was unfortunate was the leak. It served no purpose communicating to staff until there was something definite to tell them.

    As to "B", I'm only guessing here, but I'm assuming the situation was similar in Bay City. Once the decision was made from on high to cut pub days, there wouldn't have been any point in painting the deck chairs. Those cost-cutting ideas were great I'm sure. The time for streamlining had passed the company by. The irony, IMO, is that the pledge didn't allow managers to right-size the departments 20 years ago. Until the end, it was almost impossible to let anybody go. The extra HR bloat along the way sunk the rest of us by a few years at the end.

    "C" Just giving my opinion here, as this is my blog. I stand by what I said. Two of the finest gentlemen I've ever met. They kept things going longer than most administrators could have.

    "D" no comment. Some would say the CD is upper management, so I'll leave it for others to criticize me and my body of work :) As for ownership giving upper management a free pass - it was ONLY upper management that ownership held accountable. We were the ones who had to meet with them on a regular basis. Middle managers were accountable to upper. Maybe I'm not understanding you?

    Listen, I felt that same pride working for the newspaper - it was a great place to work and a fantastic group of people. Having been privy to the financials, I understand the logic in why consolidation had (and has) to occur. My issues had to do with how my body was disposed of. Take care and God Bless.

  6. To clarify my last comment, the DMs at least received a 6 month notice. Looking back, that might have been a reasonable compromise to me and my family and you might not have had the pleasure of reading this and future blogs on the subject.