I spent the first ten years of my career at Coleman, the camping equipment company. Camping was big in America after the war, and those glory days lasted decades. Coleman got its start, however, as a lighting company, back before the age of electricity. W.C. Coleman invented a safe, bright light for people’s homes. He adapted his company as electricity came through, first filling orders for the military during WWII, and then by the rise in camping, aided by the creation of the national highway system. It was a gem of a family-run company, with wholesome products produced by hard-working Midwest people who cared about the company and what they were doing. My mother worked there for 30 years.
Five years after I started, the founder’s grandson lost control of the company. The details don’t matter, but I sometimes wished I hadn’t stuck around for the next five years as we watched the company’s long, slow slide. Lots of long-term employees, including most of the executives, lost their jobs. We began outsourcing production in a big way to China. The proud culture deteriorated. It was like watching a beloved family member fight a slow, losing battle with cancer. When a second buyout happened five years later, it was clear it was time to get out. Not only did the new owner clearly not share my values, but there was something else, something personal: having watched the downhill slide for so long, I knew that if I stayed, I was going to have to adopt a hunker down strategy–find a way to stop caring and just survive. I can’t hunker down. Good or bad, I get emotionally invested in where I work. I need to somehow. I have to feel good about what I’m contributing to. I knew that I had to leave to save myself emotionally.
On my last day, I had time to kill before my going away party (there was no more work for me to do, after all), and I didn’t trust my emotions to hang around my area. I took one last walk through the plant, seeing the machinery chugging along and watching the factory workers produce the products we were all so proud of. Only I knew that my life was about to change; the workers were blissfully unaware that theirs would soon, too, as I made that last solemn walk. There were tears at the party, but no one could have predicted then how validated my decision would soon become: within 90 days, the stock dropped >80%; the company filed Chapter 11; the entire executive leadership team resigned; the SEC opened a fraud investigation; and the shareholders filed a lawsuit. All within 90 days. Obviously the new owner brought some issues with him.
As a business leader, I have thought a lot about what was lost there. The story is similar, or worse, at thousands of other American manufacturers. As time has passed, I have come to believe that the loss of the company only accelerated what came after. The world had already begun to change: customer demand had changed, and the onslaught of Chinese imports was unstoppable. Though the result of the ownership change negatively impacted a lot of people, I’m not sure the outcome would have been much different in the long run if the family had retained control. Change was inevitable. Those with history and emotion would eventually have had to make stark choices for the company to thrive…choices that would have been difficult to make due precisely to that history and those emotions. While it is impossible to say exactly what would have happened if the family had retained control, it is clear that the pull to hang on to the old ways would have been strong. But hanging on is not always healthy. I have learned that, at least, it is not healthy for me.
“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” –Bertolt Brecht