Authors Life, blizzard, Blog, life, management, retail, safety, uncomfortable, Writing

When you first realize that your company doesn’t really care about you.

This is not intended as a hit piece on a former employer, but I think it’s indicative of the corporate mindset in America. And since this happened twenty-seven years ago, the underlying condition resulting in the lack of respect has been around for a long time and likely is endemic in our culture. It came to mind today since a dear friend of mine experienced a similar thing with her employer as blizzard conditions bore down on her part of the country. Some things never change. In the world of business, it is always about the bottom line.

In the winter of 1994, a blizzard was coming. Everyone knew about it for days. We’d been preparing for it at my store, a home improvements center in Connecticut. Customers had been coming in looking for snow shovels, ice melting salt, forget about finding a snowblower, that had sold out well before the first major storm of the season. Despite having ordered more stock of storm-related items, by the day of the storm we were out of everything people might want except for batteries and flashlights and even those were running low.

Earlier that day we had a conference call with the district manager earlier. He said that as soon as the snow began falling we were to cut back our staffing and send our hourly employees home, in the interest of their safety. Anyway, we were not going to be busy, so the general manager and our six assistant managers could handle everything. That all made sense. But it was the rest that kinda irked me.

You see, the general store manager was required, at his discretion, to cut loose the assistants who lived furthest from the store, and to do it in order until there was only the general manager and one assistant – whoever lived closest to the store – remaining to stay until regular closing hours. Under no circumstances short of the police arriving at our doorstep and ordering us to close were we allowed to leave early. The company didn’t want to risk that a single customer would need something we would disappoint them, missing that potential sale.

Guess who was the assistant manager who lived closest to the store?

Here’s ‘the out’ for the company, the absolution of all guilt. They allowed the two remaining managers to split costs on a motel room for the night in lieu of driving home. Oh, and they’d also reimburse us for dinner and breakfast. The problem with all that is that the store wasn’t in the best neighborhood so the accommodations close-by were the sort of fleabag joints that local call girls took their johns. Finding anything better would still entail driving a good bit.

For me, driving home was closer. For the store manager, he lived halfway to Rhode Island. Yet, both of us drive 4X4’s, so driving home wasn’t a huge issue, other than the trip being nerve-racking and it taking a good bit longer than usual at the risk of being stranded if anything bad happened. You never know what you might face during a drive in a snowstorm. Plus, the blizzard would make for whiteout conditions which meant that driving blind was a possibility. And I told the manager that he could spend the night at my place. But he was confident that he would make it home regardless of the road conditions.

Of course, I called home to inform my wife that I’d not be home until very late. She was worried, not only about the bad roads but also driving while physically exhausted. By the luck of the schedule, I’d opened that morning, which meant that I’d been there since 4 AM. It would be one of those long days that we who were in management called working an ironman shift, being there for both opening and closing. It happened from time to time due to call-outs for sickness, covering for a required all-store management training session for which one manager, usually the administrative manager, was selected to run the for the entire day. The fact that we had a name for it should indicate that it happened often enough. Anyway, my wife was livid about how the company was treating its managers.

By 6 PM it was dark outside, except that the foot of snow that had fallen over the course of that reflected the street lights making for a fairly bright parking lot. We had four hours left before we could lock the doors and shut down the computers. We had already closed out all the resisters and put away all the money except for one till at the customer service desk where the register was configured to handle any possible transaction. And the manager and I were both fully qualified at all operations. But it had been over an hour since we’d had a customer. We’d locked all the doors except for the main entrance where the two of were were camped out.

Yes, we had a few customers that evening, averaging about one an hour. We knew the customers personally. They were regulars who lived fairly close to the store. It was weird what they came in to buy, though – nothing you would expect someone to come out in a blizzard to purchase. We sold, five 2X4X8’s to one customer, for example. I mixed some paint for another customer. Most of what we did was answer the phone to inform people that yes, we were open. The number of calls received didn’t match the number of customers who showed up at the door, though.

Shortly before closing, a guy showed up wanting to fill out an employment application. Yeah, I’m serious. That happened. The manager thought it showed how much the guy needed a job. I told him it showed how nuts the guy was. Subsequently, the manager decided to hire the guy. He didn’t last long. My gut was right about him.

Once we had closed out the last register, put away the money, and closed down the computer system for the night, the manager and I said our goodbyes and be carefuls. It took him well over 2 hours to get home, a drive that normally took him 45 minutes. It took me 45 minutes to cover 7 miles. As I was heading north the storm was actually worse around my house than it was closer to the store. When I arrived home, my wife was sitting in the family room, watching something inane on TV. Obviously, she had been worried about me. Heck, I was worried about me, too. It wasn’t an easy drive at all. At times it was difficult to know for certain where the road was. But I’d made it. But what she said to me resonated and remained in the back of my mind for my remaining years with the company, especially every ensuing time I was asked to sacrifice my personal time and safety.

“That’s how much your company thinks of you.”

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My Years at the Home(less) Depot

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My kids and I used to joke a bit when I worked for a certain major home improvements retailer. We called it “The Homeless Depot” because it seemed I was almost never home. What time I could spend with my kids was tempered because I was usually exhausted from the strain I was putting on my body. I was a lot younger then, otherwise I would have never survived the 65 to 70 hours per week (on average). Retail management can be like that, not that it makes it right for anyone having to endure long hours.

For a while the rewards were there, though. I received stock options and performance bonuses as incentives to continue working all those crazy hours. There was a stretch of time what I worked between 90 and 110 hours a week while converting an older store to a new system for receiving and handling merchandise. I was a superstar with the company at the time, on the fast track to becoming a store manager. But the company was a lot different back then than its present day version. In many ways it was a lot like running your own business with someone else money. General Managers were like kings in their own little realm. Everyone in management, even the hourly department supervisors, ¬†wanted to be a general manager. Otherwise why be a manager at all? And the advancements were there. In fact the company had more opportunities than they had qualified people. Due to its rapid growth, we hired managers from he outside and tried to train them in our ways of thinking. Sometimes it worked. I was part of that. I hired and trained some people who are store managers, district managers, regionals managers and corporate buyers. Many of them passed over me, but at the time I didn’t mind because it was for the good of the company’s growth and many times they did have more overall experience in magnet – just not within the company.

That was the company’s strength, really, growing. Each of the managers and most of the employees were stockholders and had a vested interest in ensuring the customers were treated in a way that few if any other retailers at the time did. That is why the company grew from 63 stores when I started in 1987 to over 1200 by the time I left in late 1999.

My family circa 1990

So, what changed that made me leave? A good bit of it was my personal life. I can’t blame the company for a lot of that, though my work schedule played some part in establishing the premise for my marital problems. You see, when you wok all those hours you are’t home enough to keep an eye on things. And, as I mentioned earlier, when you are home you’re bone tired. So your performance as a husband as well as a father is diminished. Apart from the usual honey-do lists like mowing the lawn and fixing this or that around the house, spending time with the kids was what I did on my days off. We went places, like the park, or places that were designed to entertain kids like amusement centers. We took in movies they wanted to see. Dad time was fun time for them. Sometimes my wife, their mother, went with us but often that was her day off from handling her duties with the kids. She spent it with friends and/or shopping.

Gradually my now ex-wife and I drifted apart. Add to that mix my hobby, writing. Since my son, my oldest child, was a baby, I had been resurrecting a story I had been working on since I was in high school – what would eventually become One Over X. Also I was formulating some of the material used in The Wolfcat Chronicles. Before 1993, the major obstacle to writing, other than the time doing other things, was that I was using a typewriter. That changed when we bought our first computer, ostensibly for the kids. From that day on I was the one learning how to use it as a prelude to teaching my kids. At first they were not all that interested. So basically it was my machine. It sat in my study on my desk. I played Solitaire on it and transcribed my novel in progress. Sometimes I experimented with other things, but mostly that’s what I did.

People at work were much more seasoned users. Some of the guys used Auto-cad. They had relatively powerful machines compared to mine. But from talking to them I learned a lot about personal computers and proper maintenance. Also, I knew I would eventually have to upgrade my machine in order to accomplish what I needed it to do. You see, I wanted to scan all those typewritten pages, 10,000 of them, and use an OCR program to convert them into digital word processing documents. The machine I had would not do that at anything near the speed I sought. Also I wanted to scan family pictures into the computer.

Somewhere along the line I began using the email address I had acquired through an online service and took an interest in locating and reconnecting with people I hadn’t seen since high school. All of that also took away from the time I spent with my wife. Since i did most of that at night after I got home, and often into he wee hours of the morning, it was not time away from my kids but from her.

Looking back on it, a lot of what happened my completely my fault. My wife and I separated. She took the kids back to Florida with her, except she went to the east coast not the west coast where we had lived previously. She wanted to be close to her best friend who live on the Space Coast. Most of my family lived on the West Coast near Clearwater. I tried for two years to get my company to transfer me back to Florida – anywhere in Florida so I could at least visit my kids on my days off and spend time with my other family – my mother and father were both getting on in years. Mom was in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s and Dad was still vigorous but he had some health issues related to Parkinson’s. Despite asking everyone my store managers to the CEO’s personal assistance for help in getting a transfer the answer was no.

You see, I had become a dinosaur for the new wave of people, the future of the company. I was an old timer with ideas rooted in the company;s formative years that the powers that be were no longer interested following . They wanted to nudge people like me into retiring. After all, most of us had plenty of stock. They didn’t realize that we were the soul of the company if not it’s heart. When they lost us, they lost a lot more than what the bean counters were considering, our relatively high salaries.

They believed they could hire tow or three younger guys to do the work we did. What they lost was the experience and expertise upon which the company was built. That is why the company is nothing like it was when I started working for them and, when I left fourteen years ago it had already started down that path. The founders and several of the major players were retiring. There was no one willing to do for me what I was asking. So I resigned.

#PersonalHistory #writing #TheWolfcatChronicles #OneOverX #RetailManagement