Send in the Clowns

Jul 01, 2003 9:30 PM  By

At turning points in our lives, we often step back and reexamine, to use a cliché, “who we are” — and all too often, the answer to that question comes as a surprise. These days, our businesses confuse us with so many turning points that we no longer know how to stand still. It might be worthwhile to step off the merry-go-round and take a fresh look at your operation’s identity and how much it has changed in the years since it was established.

O+F advisory board member Irwin Langer, who recently retired as director of operations for Gardener’s Supply Company, brought home the urgency of doing such a retrospective. At his retirement party (a cheerfully raucous affair, we’re sure), Langer said, “I’ve always taken great pride in telling people that I work for GSC and that I work in ‘operations.’ Frequently they’d ask, ‘So how many hours do you spend in surgery?’ And I’d have to explain what operations, in a mail order company, actually does.”

Few of us would be able to match Langer’s explanation of the process: “The picture that I’d paint is one of a circus,” he said. “The show usually begins with a ‘Parade of Stars’ where the performers all line up and stream by the crowds. There are those magnificent and huge elephants with the gorgeous ladies riding high on their backs. Then come the clowns with the pails and shovels picking up after them. Well, at times that’s how it feels to be in operations in a direct marketing company. Although we might not be the sexy stars receiving all the applause, it wouldn’t take long for the place to stink up without us, and then who would ever return?”

Ever the pragmatist, Langer pointed out a possible pothole in this parade. “If I’ve learned anything,” he cautioned, “it’s about what the appropriate distance is to follow behind. Too far and the damage is done, too close can also be a problem, and whatever you do, don’t be too close, looking up with your mouth open!”

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