Saturday, April 30, 2011

Courts and Courtesans

I once read that while Americans are citizens of a democracy, we work in dictatorships. The piece said that corporate boards used to vote much more than they do today. I think that some work in royal courts, and the number is going up. As economic inequality increases, the presidents who became dictators have become kings. Petty intrigue abounds.

The New Yorker, once the undisputed bastion of highbrow culture, mentions courtesans from time to time. They are celebrated in a way. Courtesans are smart, tend to invest wisely, and they're willing to do what it takes to rise to the top, as measured by consumption.

In the past, when history was framed by evolution, this would have been regarded as a great leap backward. Such behavior and royal courts were regarded as quaint relics of the past.

CEOs often replace leadership with cults of personality.

The first one to do this in recent history was Frank Lloyd Wright. On a visit to Taliesin West, I peered into a room that was nearly closed off. "That's Mr. Wright's dining room!" said a frightened voice.

"Mr. Wright is out of town."

The rejoinder remained in my head. I walked away from the dining room, and took my place with the tour group.

More recently, Jack Welch's cult of personality has kept going to the extent that he pays for it. As with many like him, he found something bigger than himself, and it was the company. He took GE to false heights, and its stock plummeted as soon as he left. As he ages, he fervently works to turn his biography into an orthodoxy to be carried forward to the less fortunate.

All of the above leads me to think about succession. While strong personalities with a vision can make for a climb to greatness, it is unlikely that there will be a younger person with similar ideas to take over. Consequently, leadership in non-democratic institutions usually falls on two types of people, neither of which is adequate for the job.

If press releases come out saying that the new leader will, "Provide a guiding hand of experience," and add that continuity will be provided, that means the company will be headed by its leading toady. The toady will attempt to build an orthodoxy around the predecessor, but it will collapse at the first crisis. Apparently, no one in management is aware of the old proverb, "Don't follow the wise man. Seek what he sought." The other type of successor is heralded by coverage from the outside about a power struggle. "A master of boardroom battles," is a phrase often used to describe this rising star. The knife-thrower will also build an orthodoxy, and it will be as useful as the one built by a toady.

The toady and the knife-thrower have one thing in common. Both are sheltered by the structure their predecessor built. They are well adapted for life within their company, but they are entirely unaware of the outside world. Both usually exit with golden parachutes, leaving others to face their company's downfall.

Power is always claimed in the name of that which is bigger than oneself. If the health of companies were important to anyone, they would democratize.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

An Appreciation of Department Store Clerks

They were the arbiters of style. At the high end, they still are. They used to help everyone look good. They are the reason for the vintage clothing boom. The rise and fall of the department store corresponds with the decades in which everyone looked good. Before the 1920s, people either looked ragged or stiff. Since the early 70s, colors and cuts have gone to various extremes. As department stores rose to their high tide in the 1960s, it was often written that one couldn't tell who was a clerk and who was a company chairman.

Today's market is much more fragmented. Like society itself, it is very tribal. It is not only possible to tell a lot about someone by their clothes, but many go out of their way to plaster themselves with logos and turn themselves into billboards. Along with many categories and subcategories, identities vary in level from poseur to hardcore. Judgment is invited and encouraged.

Department store clerks knew a lot. They knew what was in style, along with what was on the way in, and what was on the way out and why. They also knew what looked good on whom. As sizes gave way to small, medium and large, they faded away. Clothing became a commodity, and for the most part, they were no longer needed.

I miss department store clerks, and I wonder where they went. I suppose there is a book in there somewhere, with narratives by those tossed aside along with them over the years. One could read about whatever happened to earlier casualties, like ice men, along with more recent ones, such as secretaries and corporate accountants replaced by software and outsourcing.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


I have always liked maps. There is nothing wrong with maps available today. The problem is that they are starting to disappear. Selection is becoming limited.

Navigating with a map is harder than it is with a GPS. At times, everything is a mystery. Once you locate your intersection, it's like magic. Suddenly, you're somewhere. It's exactly defined on something that was printed last year.

I doubt anyone will go back to navigating with maps exclusively, but they are getting hard enough to find that I miss them. With a map, you're not entirely reliant on a GPS, and its plugs and batteries. Also, you can unfold most maps for a big picture. Zooming in and out isn't the same.

It would be great if maps could stick around, but it looks like they're just behind phonebooks as they head for the exit.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Sony and Philips

Sony was one of the first companies to change the perception of "Made in Japan" from a joke to a sign of prestige. Philips was not as well known in the US. When CD players were widely released in the early 80s, both companies catapulted to the top. Both shared the glory. Their brand equity was high, and they were sought after.

Now, both share the position Coca-Cola had in many countries in the 1960s, but without the political baggage. Coke was so pervasive that many, especially on the Left, were sick of seeing it. Similarly, Sony and Philips are everywhere, whether you like it or not. Both companies plaster their names all over everything. So far, they have inspired fatigue but not opposition.

Their former niche is wide open.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


We live in an age of great freedom. There is unprecedented freedom for the movement of capital and goods. On the other hand, labor is usually locked in, in a variety of ways.

Executives take advantage of the situation and ruin their brands. Modern captains of industry always run aground on the same rocks.

Marketing texts form part of an orthodoxy that says quality issues were resolved long ago. The thinking goes that since there are no such problems, only marketing can differentiate one brand from another. What really happened does not interfere with decision making. Quality problems are universal, because everything is a commodity. Clothes for example, used to be sold in sizes. Can ill-fitting shoes in Small, Medium and Large be far behind? Marketing only serves to entertain, because everyone knows that off-brands and big names are made at the same places.

Contract manufacturers can make everything but a pedigree.