Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Speakers - Winning and losing

Cruising around through Flikr yesterday enjoying various photos and shifting from link to link, I happened across a collection of photos taken by Stanley Marcus. They are very good, like everything Mr. Marcus put his hands on.  I had a delightful experience with Stanley (note the first name basis) years ago and the memories came rolling over me as I scrolled through the photos.

What was I doing with Stanley Marcus? At that time, I was working for Lawry's and was active in our corny management club which met once a quarter - rubber chicken dinner and a dull speaker. Because of my moaning and groaning about the speakers, I ended up with the job of recruiting them for a year. "Take that you get the speakers. Put up or shut up!!"

Shortly after my "appointment" I was in San Francisco for a project and went into the Neiman Marcus there. I was completely dazzled by the store and amazed that anyone would pay for instance, $98.00 for a T-shirt. What fantastic marketing the store had done over the years! I fantasized about getting somebody from the store as a speaker for our meeting. I heard that Richard Frank who was president and founder of Lawry's had a passing acquaintance with Stanley Marcus and he agreed to let me use his name to get Stanley's ear. Miracle of miracles, Stanley agreed to come out and speak to our group for the cost of his plane ticket and a hotel for one night and dinner with Richard Frank. I think I caught him at a weak moment or something because why would he bother with 40 people from our little company?

He was a fabulous speaker - completely down to earth and casual. He ran way over the alloted time regaling us with great stories about the beginning of the store, the marketing coups which are legendary - in particular the Christmas catalog and the "his and hers" gift. They rarely sell many of these items if at all, but they get millions in publicity every Christmas.

He told about encouraging men to wear drooping socks during WW2 in order to save the rubber that would have been used for elastic. I read on Wikipedia that he also "devised regulations for the manufacture of women's and children's clothing that would enable the nation to divert more textile resources to uniforms and other war-related needs:

We settled on certain prohibitions, such as lengths, sleeve fullness, patch pockets, ensembles, sweeps of skirts, widths of belts and depth of hems. ... The restrictions we put into effect froze the fashion silhouette. It effectively prevented any change of skirt length downward and it blocked any extreme new sleeve or collar development, which might have encouraged women to discard existing clothes.
—Stanley Marcus
In addition to these restrictions, Marcus recommended to the WPB(war production board) that coats, suits, jackets and dresses be sold separately "to make them go further." The changes were expected to create a total savings of 100,000,000 yards (91,000,000 m) of fabric to be used in the war effort.

I was so encouraged by this successful "booking" that laboring under delusions of grandeur, for the next meeting I called the man who was on the cover of NewsWeek that month, the inventor of GoreTex. He turned me down but spent a full hour on the phone telling great stories. I was particularly interested in the  company non-organization. Info from their website is below and since I write this blog mostly for myself, if the reader is not interested in Bill Gore and Goretex, I say - too bad. Like it or not, here it is:

How we work at Gore sets us apart. Since Bill Gore founded the company in 1958, Gore has been a team-based, flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication.
Instead, we communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of our multi-disciplined teams. We encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision making. Teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge. This unique kind of corporate structure has proven to be a significant contributor to associate satisfaction and retention.
I was fascinated by the fact that nobody has a title. Mr. Gore told me that if someone really needed a title to function, he encouraged them to make one up and the company would print them cards. I imagined myself in the same situation, titling myself "Empress of R and D" or "Grand Duchess of San Fernando Road". 
From these two speaker recruiting experiences I came to believe that everyone is approachable  - but that was a couple of decades ago.
A couple of months later, I was on the other side of the fence. The events coordinator at Lawry's asked me if I'd speak about creating new products to the Beverly Hills cooking club that was going to tour Lawry's. I prepared a presentation where I took one of our products and went through the ingredient declaration, explaining why we used each ingredient,  how it functioned and where it came from; fascinating things like modified corn starch (drum roll), hydrolyzed vegetable protein etc. I had them taste various products to illustrate the point. One of the products was a beef au jus - I had them taste it with and without MSG thinking they'd be interested in seeing how dramatic the difference was - after all, we (the product development lab) thought it was fascinating. As I was blabbing on and on, I realized that somebody in the audience looked familiar and that it was Danny Kaye! Wow, I thought to myself...Danny Kaye is listening to me speak. Then I realized Danny Kaye was really irritated with me....and then I realized they were ALL irritated with me. That feeling that I had bombed just washed over me like a hot flash - sort of like telling a joke when nobody laughs. I guess the group had been told they were getting some kind of culinary demonstration, not an exercise in TASTING MSG, as the group leader sharply chastised me later. At the end, they all whisked out of the room  - all the Beverly Hills foodies, without even throwing a glance my way.

So I called my Mom and could proudly say, "Guess what...I really irritated Danny Kaye today". At least I didn't bore them.


  1. That's hilarious! Click here for even more laughs from Danny.
    I'd consider it an honor to have received his attention. Loved the guy!

  2. Great story about Stanley Marcus. What a guy ! But I'm wincing for you about Danny Kaye and his group.

  3. At least I didn't get fired! A lesson learned about knowing your audience. Thanks for the wince.