Sunday, February 20, 2011

“Roundtable Rowdy”

c. 2011 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

The morning was busy at McDonald’s on Water Street in Chardon.

I arrived just after eight o’clock, hoping to buy breakfast before the activities began. We had gathered for the monthly meeting of our Geauga Writers’ Roundtable.

In attendance were many noted wordsmiths from around the county. I felt a tingle of excitement while enjoying my first cup of coffee. Notepads were strewn over the table by their artificial fireplace. We chatted briefly about Twitter accounts and cell-phone plans. Then, the happening commenced.

Carrie Hamglaze, a local figure of renown, was already at our table with a cup of tea. She was a vision of mature womanhood, dressed in Irish green and Hilltopper red.

“Dear friends,” she began. “Allow me to bring this event to order!”

Everyone stopped talking.

“The Roundtable is nearing an anniversary,” she proclaimed. “We have been meeting here for almost two years.”

Cheers echoed throughout the room.

“We have discussed many important issues,” she continued. “Like school funding, election reform, taxation, and community development.”

Mack Prindl of the Parkman Register agreed. “These are all important issues,” he said, plainly.

“Today, I’d like to hear what you think will be the big local stories of 2011,” Carrie continued.

Mack loosened his black-and-gold tie. “Well, the new South Geauga Growth Partnership is drafting a plan to spur business development in my township…”

Martha Ann Reale of the Newbury Siren-Monitor pointed a finger at her journalistic cohort. “Hah! You just want to avoid any mention of the Superbowl!” she hissed. “Loser!”

“Please!” Carrie sputtered. “Let’s stay focused here!”

Ezekiel Byler-Gregg of the Burton Daily Bugle echoed Martha Ann’s sentiment. “Fess up, Prindl. You are just trying to avoid our REAL biggest issue of the day!”

I gestured for attention. “Carrie is right. We need to remember our mission as a group…”

Mack bowed his head. “Thanks, Rod. I think some professionalism is in order here.”

“Hah!” Martha Ann snorted. “It’s time for your comeuppance, Pringle! Loser! Loser!”

“That’s P-R-I-N-D-L!” he growled.

“No,” Ezekiel disagreed. “It’s L-O-S-E-R!”

Carrie was stunned. “Please!” she begged. “Can we talk about local things?”

I gestured for attention once again. “Listen, my column about Danelectro guitars produced a personal response from Howard Daniel, son of the company founder…”

Ezekiel thumped the table with his fist. “Mack has been happy to shoot off his mouth about the Pittsburgh Steelers. Well, their ride is over. Green Bay showed America who is the better team. Admit it, neighbor!”

Carrie was overwhelmed. “Order, please! I call for order here!”

Martha Ann cackled like a sorceress. “I call for Pringle to admit that he’s a loser!”

“Six Superbowl rings!” Mack howled.

“The Packers now have thirteen rings,” Martha Ann squawked in response. “Try to match that, loser!”

I shook my head. “Come on everybody. I like football too, but this is a journalist roundtable. We are supposed to be talking about stories in our newspapers…”

Ezekiel growled like a bear. “Okay, Rod. On my front page will be a feature about the disappearance of Steeler colors in Burton. How about that, huh? Where’d they go? Off to outer space on a UFO? I haven’t seen a team jersey or hat for several days now. Before the Superbowl they were everywhere.”

“So much for true fans supporting their team!” Martha Ann hissed.

Carrie rubbed her eyes. “How about the MoveSmart wellness program in Chagrin Falls? Don’t you think that is a cutting-edge strategy to better the lives of our students?”

“All I know is Big Ben got plenty of exercise running away from the Packers’ Clay Matthews,” Ezekiel huffed. “That kid is just like his father. Remember number 57 for the old Cleveland Browns?”

Mack brightened, suddenly. “You want to talk about losers? The Browns are LOSERS all the way around!”

Ezekiel went red. “Actually, the Browns have eight rings, kiddo.”

Silence filled the room.

“Eight rings?” Mack wheezed. “In what, their bathtub?”

“Actually, Zeke is right,” I agreed. “The Browns have four NFL Championships and four AAFC Championships since their beginning in 1946…”

Martha Ann cackled again. “Take that, loser!”

“Six Superbowl rings!” Mack pleaded, breathlessly.

“Rings, schmings,” Ezekiel said. “Big Ben didn’t exactly look like a champ against the Green Bay defense!”

“Actually, he was throwing interceptions like Brett Favre,” I laughed. “Ironic, isn’t it?”

Mack tossed his coffee cup across the room. “That’s it! I’ve had enough!”

Ezekiel slapped him playfully. “Calm down, buddy. The hurt will fade after awhile. Let it go… football is just a game, remember.”

“A wise sentiment,” I said.

“It’ll fade,” Martha Ann agreed. “But… not today! Right now, you’re a L-O-S-E-R!”

Carrie surrendered at last.

“This meeting is adjourned!” she proclaimed. “Have a great day!”

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

“The Inverted Pyramid”

c. 2011 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

"There is nothing more important to us than being a great place to work. When our people feel valued and cared about, they, in turn, make our customers feel the same.”

- Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman

A recent story about the New York supermarket chain Wegmans produced reflective thoughts for this writer. As a former retail manager in Geauga County, I felt moved by their tale of commercial excellence.

Based near Rochester, this food retailer was once again recognized as being a member of Fortune’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For.’ Incredibly. they have received the honor for fourteen consecutive years.

At number three on the list, Wegmans was the highest-ranked retailer in America. Noted in the story were company programs to promote employee health through good dietary habits. And, the availability of free medical screenings and flu vaccinations.

The closest Wegmans location to Geauga County is in Erie, Pennsylvania. I have occasionally visited the store when traveling east, in search of different surroundings. Every encounter with their style of business has produced positive emotions for myself.

Indeed, entering the Peach Street marketplace has always felt like traveling to foreign bazaar, filled with tasty goods of all sorts. A festive atmosphere makes their produce, bakery, deli, service meats, seafood, and café departments come alive with theatrical energy. Shoppers are immersed in sensory waves of music, aromatic delights, and colors.

After reading the Fortune report, I pondered a bygone business column from my own newspaper archives. This forgotten manuscript seemed to reflect a similar line of thinking to the philosophy being employed by Danny Wegman:


“Think for a moment – if we were in a meeting of company associates, and I asked, ‘Who is the most important person in this company, to our customers?’ What name would come to mind? Perhaps that of the CEO? Or maybe an Executive Vice President? In a local sense, your own Store Manager? Or (a) favorite department head? The reality here is that quite often, someone like a friendly cashier, clerk, or bagger may be in the position to decide whether a patron will choose our market, or a competitor’s store. On a salesfloor level, even the most humble among us is likely to hold real power in promoting retail success.”

My line of reasoning was that every team member provided a genuine ‘link’ between customers and the corporation. Therefore, I reckoned that the true importance of empowering our employees could not be overstated.

I used a past customer issue to demonstrate this truism:

“Incident #1234 – Customer was unhappy with the conduct of an employee. She was shopping with a small child and wanted to finish her visit quickly. She spoke to the manager on duty in regard to her displeasure. He didn’t seem to be paying attention. She wanted to pass along her comments to corporate supervision. Can we call her immediately?”

The memo depicted two breakdowns in communication. First, between the salesfloor associate and the customer. Second, between the manager and his patron. The result was that our shopper left without her situation being resolved. To nullify the damage, an operator at company headquarters suggested that a gift basket should be sent.

It was a proper reaction to the complaint, but not a real solution to what created the problem.

I observed that increased focus on the value of each associate as a representative of the business was vital. To represent this, I imagined an inverted pyramid. Our corporate resources were balanced on top. But serving as a narrow foundation was the store-level employee. Care would be required to maintain balance in this equation.

Additionally, I suggested that poor habits needed to be replaced with fresh, positive ideals. The ‘culture’ itself had to be changed:

“Learning is an everyday occurrence. Our people are being ‘trained’ while working. We need to take charge of this process with increased attention to the very core of our business – service to others. (We need) additional motivation and retraining that is targeted specifically at ‘empowering’ team members (with) increased value for the ‘identity’ of our company as a family.”

Pondering this lesson in retailing in a modern context, I arrived at three conclusions:

ONE – Problems should be addressed in ‘real time’ rather than ‘after the fact.’
TWO – Conflicts should be viewed as opportunities to shine through resolution.
THREE – Attention paid to customer needs is a guaranteed investment for the future.

Wegmans has become a benchmark retailer – philosophically opposite to the cold minimalism of Walmart. Their ideas are sound and useful. But new-age thinking is alive everywhere across the business spectrum.

Even here in Geauga County, USA.

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Friday, February 04, 2011

“Econotone Dreams”

c. 2011 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

It was a cold winter morning in Geauga County.

Looming crests of snow cast shadows across my driveway. But a momentary hour of sunshine brightened the day. I felt ready to travel.

The landscape sparkled with wild luminosity. Everything had been drenched in freezing rain, overnight. Now, the roadway was clear. Yet the touch of Jack Frost remained. Tree branches tipped toward the ground. Crystal patterns were framed against the sky.

After visiting the Chardon post office, and Giant Eagle, I turned toward Hambden. On the way home was the bungalow of my iconoclastic friend, Archer. As a poet, musician, photographer, marksman, and two-wheeled drifter, he always had a unique viewpoint to share.

Not surprisingly, he had decided to spend the day at home.

A Steppenwolf record was playing as I approached his front door. But before I could knock, he peered through the glass.

“Heyy, Rod!” he laughed. “You stoppin’ by for some coffee?”

He had sent an invitation by e-mail, weeks ago.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I agreed.

The door creaked open, with a cascade of falling snow.

“You won’t believe the old percolator I found,” he boasted. “It came from a shop in Cleveland Heights. Like the kind of thing people had when I was a kid.”

I nodded with appreciation. “So, what have you been doing with all this downtime?”
Archer scratched his graying beard.

“Cursin’ the day I moved back from California,” he bellowed. “Other than that… just catchin’ up on unfinished projects. Gotta get my bike running this year, so I have the motor torn apart in my kitchen. And I put a new set of tuners on my Guild guitar. There’s a lot to do.”

I nodded again. “That sounds very productive.”

He pulled out the antique percolator while we were talking. “Ain’t this thing heavy? It’s got more chrome than a Harley-Davidson chopper!”

I was amazed by its heft.

“An example of lost craftsmanship,” I observed. “No wonder they lasted so long.”

My friend started a pot of coffee as we were talking.

“Well anyway, what have you been doing lately?” he asked.

“Reading,” I reflected. “About Nathan Daniel.”

“Who?” he stammered.

“Nathan Daniel,” I repeated. “The guy behind Danelectro guitars.”

His face brightened. “Ha, ha, ha, I remember those! I had one out of the Sears catalog.”

“Thousands of careers began with one of them,” I smiled. “Their amplifier-in-the-case models were insanely popular.”

“So, what’s the scoop on those axes?” he said, quizzically.

I unfolded a piece of newsprint, and began to read:

“The very first Danelectro guitars were built beginning in 1954. For many teen-agers, this was their first instrument. Brand new, the cheapest models cost as little as $69.00. Many were sold by Sears, under the label ‘Silvertone.’ The most popular models came in a case with a built-in amplifier. Today, that $69.00 guitar, unmodified, and in excellent condition could cost you $500.00 or more. Because they were so cheap, many Danelectros were thrown away, damaged or altered along the way. Constructed simply of wood, vinyl, masonite and Formica, Danelectros used ‘lipstick tube’ metal pick-ups that were literally purchased from a lipstick-tube manufacturer. The guitars were made simply, with no pearl adornments or expensive wood. Professional guitarists have driven up the value of authentic Danelectros because they cherish the instrument's unique sound and look. They have a bell-like tone and a very clean sound. But non-professionals, many of them nostalgic baby boomers, are also entranced. There's the show-off, cool aspect to owning one. And the rareness. They have a sound, look and color all their own.
Many of today's top rock guitarists own a ‘Danos.’ They play them on stage and use them in the studio. Joe Perry of Aerosmith once offered someone $30,000 for an entire Danelectro collection! Guitars designed by Nathan Daniel (1912-1994) never reached the pantheon of instruments made by Fender, Gibson, and Martin. But in their own way they were no less influential, their low price tag making them readily available to the masses.”

“Well that’s cool,” he said. “I see them on eBay all the time.”

“There were reproductions issued from Korea,” I explained. “Then newer models made in China. But genuine Danelectro guitars were from Neptune, New Jersey.”

“Neptune?” he chortled.

“That’s right,” I said. “Daniel’s story has always inspired me. Reading this makes me want to relive his adventure…”

Archer paused over the percolator.

“Uh, oh!” he grunted. “Don’t tell me… this is like your dream to make comic books in the style of Harvey Pekar, right?”

My face was red. “No! I want to build my own electric guitars.”

He slumped over the countertop.

“You want to do… what??” he stammered.

“Build my own electric guitars,” I repeated. “Right here in Geauga.”

The old biker rubbed his eyes. “You are crazy, Iceman. There is no doubtin’ that.”

“Come on!” I pleaded. “Haven’t you ever had a dream?”

“Sure,” he said. “I dream every day. I dream about gettin’ back to California. I dream about gettin’ my Hawg back on the road. Stuff I can really do… you know?”

My face was red. “I can build a guitar!”

“Sure, okay buddy,” Archer muttered. “So how do you get started?”

I took another scrap of paper out of my pocket.

“Look at this!” I boasted. “My first ad for the new Econotone brand!”

His jaw dropped open.

“You are Harvey Pekar, after all,” he huffed.

“Gibson and Fender make great instruments,” I said. “But there is a need out there… for affordable guitars made right here in Ohio. It can be done. The result would be more appreciation for music, and more jobs for our people.”

“Now you sound like a politician,” he groaned.

“Not at all,” I protested. “Just a creative voice wanting to be heard.”

“So, where did you get the design?” he wondered out loud.

“The idea first struck me thirty years ago,” I confessed. “But lately, a certain model of ‘SX’ guitar grabbed my attention on the Internet. It looks like a Fender Jazzmaster with the lower body trimmed away. Very much like a surf-era relic with tailfins. I reckon a re-interpretation of that would be my starting point. The Econotone E-1.”

Archer snorted with amusement.

“Okay, buddy,” he said at last. “That’s cool I guess. If you can write books and report for a newspaper, I guess you can build your own axes, too. But right now… let’s have some of that old-time coffee!”

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