Doffing our cap to Mr. Lansky, a legend in salesmanship
In our August/September 2015 issue, we highlighted some of the best salespeople in the city, while Jon W. Sparks looked into “The Art of Selling.” No such story would be complete in Memphis without Alvin Lansky, a fashion-forward man if ever there was one, and one-half of the duo (along with brother Bernard) that clothed the King and many of us commoners in town.
Lansky passed away last Sunday at the age of 86; our thoughts are with his family. Watching Lansky work was like watching a maestro wave his baton, like watching Elvis himself swivel his hips. I was in awe the first time I saw him and here’s what I wrote in my Letter From the Editor last year:
Mister Hats in the Poplar Plaza Shopping Center was someplace I’d driven past for years and wondered, “How does anyone make a living selling hats these days?” It seemed a fashion choice that had gone out of fashion, along with walking sticks and ascots.
I stopped in one day and browsed the shelves of bowlers, fedoras, boaters, and porkpies, but was pulled away by what was happening a few feet away. A woman had come in and told Alvin Lansky, the owner with a pedigree for fashion and sales, what she was looking for and what she wanted to pay. He led her to the appropriate shelf to look on her own. Then, without saying anything more, he picked up a similar, albeit more expensive, hat to the one she’d requested. He still didn’t speak, but simply admired it, picked a bit of lint from its brim, and ran a palm lovingly over its dome.
“What’s that?” she finally asked. “Oh, this?” he answered. There was a brief exchange and then I watched as she paid for that top-shelf chapeau and left.
It was an astounding scene, as though it had been choreographed and produced for my own entertainment. Lansky listened to his customer, showed her what she needed, and then put something she wanted just within reach.
The answer to who might make a living selling $150 Borsalino fedoras (my unexpected purchase that day) in an age of backward baseball caps is Alvin Lansky, and it was a treat to have him do so. — Richard J. Alley
The Art of Selling
Selling at its most basic level is what you find at Mister Hats in the Poplar Plaza shopping complex.
Alvin Lasky – you feel compelled to call him Mr. Lansky – opened his topper shop 30 years ago after having sold hair care products with one of his brothers.
Eventually, he wanted to do something different, and, of course, his family had some skills in the clothing store business with another brother, Bernard Lansky, who got lots of business thanks to that Elvis Presley fella.
But for Alvin (Mr. Lansky from here on out), he wanted to focus on one thing. “He was looking for something he could carry that would be simple to provide the customer,” says Mark Lennon, who married Mr. Lansky’s granddaughter and now manages the store. “He didn’t realize that product would turn into so many styles and colors, and next thing you know, he had a store with a thousand hats, and it was never enough.”
Mr. Lansky is 86 and still at the store, dressed as sharp as you please and prepared to sell you a hat.
To this day, he keeps it to the fundamentals: “We try to give the customer what we think will be pleasing to him,” he says.
That knowledge requires a keen observational power that Mr. Lansky has developed over the decades. “You put the different pieces together based on what they’re asking for – although they may not quite know – and based on body type and head type,” says Lennon. “We do it on the fly, trying to find something that will fit the customer’s personality.”
And that’s because, as Mr. Lansky says of his customers, “They’re the boss!”
Lennon says the kind of sale he most enjoys seeing Mr. Lansky make is when someone comes in, looks around critically, and declares there’s nothing in the store. “And the next thing you know, he’s walking out with $300 worth of hats.” — Jon W. Sparks
by Doug Carpenter
My desk at DCA overlooks South Main Street, directly across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum and the revitalized district that surrounds it. Every morning I sit in this space and I feel the pulse of Downtown development.
The momentum and energy and volume of activity Downtown increases almost on a daily basis, not just through tourism, but through activation of our own residents who flock here for sporting events, trolley nights, farmers markets, festivals, and more.
Downtowns nationwide are collectively experiencing a renaissance. Their relatively small, walkable areas concentrate commercial, cultural, and civic assets. Downtowns are the intersections of business, tourism, and cultural exchanges, creating a vibrant identity for the greater city.
Downtown development is about reimagining. It’s about a new perspective and asking questions. Who are we? How do we tell our story?
People often talk about the brand of Memphis. Famed marketer David Ogilvy defines a brand as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.”
I believe Memphis’ brand is defined daily in Downtown. Our spaces are evolving from a historically iconic Peabody and Rendezvous to a
newly reimagined Tom Lee Park and visionary adaptation of Central Station.
The Chisca and the Tennessee Brewery, both left to waste away on the Bluff, are reactivating into top-tier urban residential and commercial developments, injecting life and momentum and density into the South Main landscape. The daunting Pyramid’s empty center is now converted into a national destination.
Downtown areas generally sit central in a city’s landscape, but Memphis’ Downtown has a limited geographic footprint. Its position on the Mississippi poses interesting barriers but provides great opportunities. You can’t develop west because of a river … or can you? Thanks to a focused and driven public-private partnership, an inactive old wagonway on the Harahan Bridge will now draw millions of tourists and residents to the Big River Crossing to witness the power of the Mississippi and the ever-evolving skyline of Downtown Memphis.
And the efforts continue: Mud Island, the Medical District, and St. Jude’s expansion are following suit on the drawing board. I am confident they, too, will yield creativity, ingenuity, and collaboration. The combination of new perspectives and focused innovators will continue to write new chapters.
All of these pieces are our packaging, our history, and reputation. We don’t need to redefine our brand. We simply need to continue to reimagine its elements. Memphis will always have a rich history, but our identity is about our present and our future.
I look forward to continuing to watch the story unfold from my seat in the middle of it all. What’s next can only be imagined by people with a commitment to the city. Are you one of them?
Doug Carpenter is principal of DCA, creative communications consulting firm.
by Richard J. Alley
Marriage, like soccer, is a team sport, and Natalie and Alfredo Cerpa — owners of Greenfield Arena — appear to have the fancy footwork for both.
Avid soccer players, the Cerpas met in 2010 as their leagues and worlds overlapped. The Cordova facility where they both played indoor soccer was busy, yet poorly run, and Natalie knew it could be done better. With a background in her family’s longtime, Memphis-based business, Hill Services, she drew up a plan and began talking with people in the business community who, as she says, “were committed to the city.”
At the same time, Alfredo was organizing and running a variety of soccer leagues around town. Originally from Chile, he’d been a member of that country’s national gymnastics team before switching over to soccer and playing in a second-tier division with a professional organization. An injury sidelined his career, and he came to the University of Memphis in 2001 to learn the English language, staying for work as an IT consultant and, eventually, his new family.
They looked into building a new facility but quickly realized that wasn’t economically feasible. The search for an existing structure — one with enough wide-open space for a regulation field (pitch, as it’s called in soccer), viewing section, bathrooms, concession stand, office, etc., but with no obstructing columns — led them to a compound of pre-fab buildings housing a tennis facility and former soccer and field hockey field in Midtown, nestled beside a railroad overpass on South Willett Street just off of Central Avenue.
The team signed a two-year lease (optioned twice again since), and put a six-figure sum into clean-up and renovation. “When we walked in, it was full of antiques, [the landlord] used it as storage,” Natalie says. “Basically the shell was here and we had to get everything out. Everything you see on the inside, we did.”
Greenfield was opened for business in 2011. Natalie and Alfredo were married a year later.
They kicked off with four leagues playing two seasons. Where adult soccer was the focus in the beginning, now the kids’ leagues and skills training programs have become part of the mix.
“We felt like the kids would only come inside in the winter, but the business has changed and we’ve been able to establish a brand, and now I think people see that this is a soccer place and want their kids to learn, and want them to come here,” Natalie says. She adds with a laugh, “And it’s kind of nice to sit inside as a parent.”
The leagues are the mainstay, the meat of the business, and the gaps are filled with open play, skills training, and the like. But the key to success is in filling up an entire day with play at Greenfield, so another aspect to their business is late-night leagues accommodating the second-shift workforce and restaurant employees just clocking out. These are matches that can go until one or two in the morning.
The soccer community has grown over the years. Natalie grew up playing in competitive leagues, with her church, at the Hutchison School, and in college. Now there are more and more local leagues and clubs every season, with heavy growth in the youth arena. The Cerpas have tapped into that community and at the end of 2014 (the same week their son, Alexander, was born), the couple opened Greenfield East off of Sycamore View near Summer Avenue.
Today, there are about 10 recreational leagues that run the gamut — men’s and women’s over 35 (years old), laid back, co-ed pick-up, etc. — at each location. Leagues vary in size for each of two seasons with 50 to 70 teams in the spring, and up to 100 teams for the winter. That puts anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 players on the pitch during a given season.
With two full-time employees, and one part-time between the two locations — and their own hands full with family and careers — Alfredo works overseeing the facilities and developing new leagues to broaden the reach and continuing to fill in the gaps.
“I’m always looking to see, ‘What is the market?’” he says. “All these people who played high school soccer, but they’re not as skilled and didn’t make college, but they want to play, what is out there for them? For these people who want to come and run, get some exercise, safe and not get injured; that’s where our focus has been.”
For more on Greenfield Arena and indoor soccer, visit greenfieldarena.com.
by Craig Wright
Alongside daily operations, business owners are tasked with asset protection, including their property, information, employees, and customers. But even if your physical entryways are protected, hackers can break into your business through an unsecured network. Your network houses your company’s information, which may be worth as much or more than a business’ physical assets. Apple has demonstrated the importance of data security by being unwilling to cooperate with an FBI investigation. The tech company refused to create a “backdoor” into the iPhone operating system because doing so would jeopardize the cybersecurity of all iOS users.
Fortunately, advancements in technology have helped prevent business losses of all kinds, including physical assets, information, and productivity at very affordable costs. Unfortunately, tragedies in public spaces and cases of leaked intelligence continue to put pressure on business owners to invest in more advanced preventative safety measures.
It is crucial for businesses to operate under a network that is secure, but creating such a network can be expensive. However, the cost of handling the fallout after a data breech far outweighs the cost of preventing one. Gartner Inc., a Connecticut-based information technology research and advisory company, estimates that every $5.62 a company spends after a breech could have been prevented with a $1 investment in data encryption and network security.
State Systems Inc. has seen more interest from business owners seeking security solutions in the last nine months than in the entire year prior, and physical security remains a top priority.
A common misconception is that video surveillance is too expensive to implement, but it is actually much more affordable than most business owners realize. Many existing surveillance systems can be retrofitted using cameras with exponentially better resolution and updated features like cloud compatibility.
While security cameras are great for recording activity and deterring crime, the devices become more beneficial when paired with a controlled-access system. For many businesses like daycares, schools, medical facilities, and financial institutions, it is important to manage the access of those allowed on the premises, and controlled-access systems offer an easy and affective option to screen individuals before they enter a facility.
Data isn’t only transmitted digitally; it is also passed verbally from employee to employee. As open-air offices become more prevalent, companies are seeking out ways to maintain employee productivity and protect private conversations. Rightfully so, as global market research company Ipsos found that employees can lose as much as 86 minutes per day because of noise distractions. Noise canceling devices serve as a popular solution for businesses with open office spaces and can help mask conversations.
Security technology can seem costly and intimidating, but there are options for every business size and situation. It is important to choose a partner vendor that understands your security needs and can provide the products and services you need. When debating whether to invest in a security technology, make sure to ask yourself if your business could afford to lose life or property as a result of not having it. That conclusion should be your answer.
Craig Wright is the general manager of the Technology Division at State Systems Inc., a local leader in personal property protection.
Fortunate: Memphis is represented by two on the Fortune magazine list of 100 Best Companies to Work For
Richard J. Alley
In Memphis, everyone knows someone who works in the healthcare industry. Likewise, everyone knows a lawyer. In March, Fortune magazine named two of the largest Memphis employers of medical staff and attorneys to its list of The 100 Best Companies To Work For. Those two companies sit side-by-side on page 152 of the magazine — St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz.
Fortune partnered with Great Places to Work to come up with the best workplaces in the country. Scores were based on the results of the Trust Index Employee Survey, sent to a random sampling of employees from St. Jude and Baker Donelson. “This survey asks questions related to employees’ attitudes about management’s credibility, overall job satisfaction, and camaraderie.” Another part of the score is from responses to the Culture Audit, and its focus on pay and benefit programs, and a series of open-ended questions about hiring practices, methods of internal communication, recognition programs, and diversity efforts.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Though it took St. Jude a couple of tries to find its place on the notable list, this marks the sixth year the hospital has made it. “What we did was we listened to our employees and what they valued and what they were looking for, and over time we were able to make changes,” says Dana Bottenfield, vice president of human resources for St. Jude. “At the end of the day, the reward and the recognition of that is getting on the list. It’s recognizing the efforts the organization has made to truly make it a great place to work and listen to our employees and understand what they value.”
Specifically, the hospital has recognized the high-stress environment many of its employees work in and created ways to relax and celebrate their accomplishments through programs such as employee appreciation days throughout the year.
Another item of importance was a way to increase communication between employees and administration. “We’re constantly trying to come up with new ways for our leaders to get information to our employees,” Bottenfield says, “but one of the things we’re focusing on right now is having more vehicles for our employees to speak to our leadership.” Topics of concern are gathered and voted on with the most prevalent and important being presented at a town hall event with the CEO and supporting groups on hand to field questions.
St. Jude is below the national average when it comes to employee turnover, especially where the healthcare industry is concerned. “Healthcare runs somewhere between 15 and 20 percent, and since right before the economic downturn in 2008, we’ve remained under 10 percent,” Bottenfield says. “The last couple of years we’ve hovered around 7 or 8 percent turnover, which is very low.”
The Fortune list remains a strong recruitment tool as St. Jude searches globally to boost its roster that now stands at 4,300 strong, with plans to grow by 1,000 over the next six years. “Knowing you have an atmosphere that is full of pride, of camaraderie, of communication, and fairness, those are things that appeal to every person, and so us getting on that list is definitely one of the main things we try to leverage in recruitment.”
Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz
The law firm of Memphis-based Baker Donelson includes a massive workforce of more than 1,300 spread out across 20 cities, yet the culture of the firm remains consistent from office to office. And it’s this culture that has seen Baker Donelson on the Fortune list for seven years. “In a nutshell, we’re committed to the development and the morale of our people, which empowers them and motivates them to serve our clients, our communities, and each other,” says CEO and chairman Ben Adams.
A lot goes into that. At the top of Adams’ list is strong communication to help everyone understand their role in the mission of the firm so they know that they matter. “We have a number of ways where people can communicate directly,” Adams says. “Every day we have what we call our ‘Daily Docket,’ where groups of folks throughout the firm spend 10 minutes talking about different things going on in the firm, talking about various client service standards that we’d like to highlight, different things going on with our clients. That’s an ideal vehicle where people are together and you get a lot of feedback from that.”
The firm hosts gumbo and chili cook-offs, and a birthday beer car. But there are also programs and initiatives such as eight hours of paid time off to spend in community service, and the firm’s ongoing commitment to pro bono work. These are programs, Adams says, “that let nice people be nice.”
When traveling from office to office, Adams speaks with lawyers and staff about what’s going on in the firm and to learn what questions they may have. This is done at all levels throughout the company. “One of the things I think we’ve done a really good job of is bridging the stratification that occurs in most law firms between lawyers and non-lawyers, between partners and everybody else,” he says. “That is something that is a typical problem in a law firm, sort of a caste system, and I think we’ve done a really good job of blurring those lines and making every person feel like they have a role to play.”
Knowing the importance of that role, and holding its place on the Fortune list, goes a long way to retaining its great people. Being on the list, Adams says, “is an objective outside measurement that we have a great culture.”
View the full list at fortune.com/best-companies.
by Katherine Barnett Jones
“The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit. The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it . . . nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.” — Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
With a prime spot on Mark Twain’s mighty river and an arm’s reach to the hills of the Ozarks and the Smoky Mountains, Memphians have an ever-growing number of opportunities to get their fill of climbing, cycling, camping, and boating within driving distance. Whether choosing to take a drive or stay closer to home, one store has led the way to equip the Bluff City for adventure since 1974.
“We sell carbon-fiber kayaks, we sell titanium, carbon-fiber bicycles . . . for 41 years, we’ve been offering a really premium product, and Memphians have responded,” says Joe Royer, president and co-founder of Outdoors Inc. “I really think our best business trait is not underestimating the city and believing in the people.”
A West Tennessee native, Royer graduated from the University of Memphis (then Memphis State) with a degree in civil engineering. When he left his New York engineering firm after a promotion to vice president in his early twenties to go into outdoor recreation, his boss thought he was crazy. Outdoors Inc., though, has become an essential element of the Memphis recreation community.
Today’s Outdoors Inc. was founded as “The Great Outdoors” when Royer and co-founder Lawrence Migliara, both avid canoe and kayak racers, combined their performance equipment stores. Over time, they added camping and climbing equipment, ski gear, bikes, and more.
Today, customers at any of the company’s four locations — Midtown, East Memphis, Cordova, and Jackson, Tennessee — can seek high-quality equipment and information on nearly any outdoor sport, in addition to in-demand brands like Chaco, Patagonia, and Yeti.
Learning from the expertise offered by Outdoors Inc. employees is one of the best things about visiting the stores, says Midtown sales associate Eric Bleier.
“All of us do have a lot of expertise in these areas, whether it be boating, cycling, rock climbing, backpacking, spelunking,” Bleier says. “We know what we’re talking about. We’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellowstone; Yosemite.”
Each of the three Memphis Outdoors Inc. locations offers a little of everything, plus its own unique niche. A rock climbing wall is part of the Cordova store, while the Midtown location holds extra storage for canoes and kayaks behind its Union Avenue building. In East Memphis, a full-service bike shop is part of the Poplar Avenue store, which also becomes the primary ski and snowboard location in the winter.
The canoes, bikes, and other equipment sold are used all over the world, from the Rockies to Mount Kilamanjaro. One of Royer’s biggest goals, though, is to help Memphians embrace the natural beauty right here in Shelby County.
“We’ve got this beautiful oak forest we live in, we’ve got the Mississippi, we’ve got this gently rolling flatter terrain; it’s perfect for a bicycle,” Royer says.
The cycling community in Memphis has known that for decades, but the expansion of the Shelby Farms Greenline and extra bike lanes throughout the city have led to huge growth in the sport in recent years. The Harahan Bridge Project is set to connect Tennessee pedestrians and cyclists to our Arkansas neighbors across the river in fall 2016, and the 4,500 acres of outdoor opportunity just miles from downtown at Shelby Farms Park is the largest example of the many parks and recreation areas thriving in Memphis today.
Outdoors Inc. sponsors events throughout the year to encourage Memphians to get out and enjoy the city, including paddling classes on the Mississippi and the Winter Off-Road Race Series for trail runners. The annual Cyclocross Race is the longest-running event of its kind in the United States, bringing world-class athletes to Memphis every fall, and summer brings the Canoe and Kayak Race on the Mississippi — an event close to Royer’s heart.
Still an avid paddler, Royer often starts his day with a 10K on the Mississippi. He tracks the weather upstream regularly and has learned the details of the river’s tides, eddys, currents, and frequent travelers, big and small. Royer’s view of the river isn’t fear, it’s respect — a view he’s made it his life’s mission to share.
“It is dangerous, but so is St. Moritz, so are the Rockies,” Royer says. “It doesn’t take a super athlete … you need skill and knowledge. You don’t need bravery. Bravery will get you killed — you don’t need to prove to anyone that you’re not scared of the Mississippi.”
With this expertise, it was Royer who recognized that the water in the Wolf River at the far north end of Mud Island might just make a stable starting point for a few hundred canoes and kayaks. He mapped out a 5K route for a race, ending at Mississippi River Park — and the rest is history. The Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race will take place on the Mississippi for the 35th year this June, with more than 500 participants taking part in last year’s event.
Royer and his wife spend their vacations taking part in bike and canoe races all over the world. Being a part of the greater community gives Royer a voice to spread the word about the canoe race and other events in Memphis, bringing world-class athletes like Olympic gold medalist Greg Barton, Pan Am Champion Michael Herbert, and others to race on the Mississippi.
While it’s a great competition for these elite athletes, the majority of participants are locals with no canoe expertise who are just able to enjoy a beautiful day with a few more minutes to sit back and enjoy the river than those first few finishers.
“Some years, it’s easier to make the U.S. Olympic Team than to win the Outdoors Inc. race,” Royer says. “That’s how good the competition is. Most people just see it as fun, and that’s what I want it to be. I want it to be for the young couple that just wants something fun to do, to hear some music and go home.”
Coordination with Ghost River Outfitters allows participants who don’t own equipment to rent canoes and have them ready to go on race day. The fun continues with music, food, and vendors along Mud Island after the event, highlighting another part of the city that has developed into a major recreational outlet for Memphians since the race began more than three decades ago.
Most importantly, Royer has trekked to the Corps of Engineers office every January for 35 years to file a permit that holds barges along that part of the river during race day in order for the smaller boats to go by safely.
A lot has changed in Memphis since 1974, but Outdoors Inc. has been there along the way, “outfitting human-powered recreation,” as their motto states, and reminding Memphians of just how much they have to work with.
“Denver was a cowtown until they embraced the mountains and snow,” Royer says. “You can’t wish you had something else. We’ve had this long-term approach to embrace what we’ve got. You look out at this river, and it is just magnificent. What we’ve got is amazing.”
by Vance Lauderdale
In the late 1950s, Memphis made a splash into the pleasure boating craze that swept the country. Many of the boats built in garages and little shops in other cities in those days weren’t worth remembering, but three entrepreneurs here established a company building boats that are still on the water today.
In 1959, entrepreneurs Michael Ossorio, Harry Schmeisser Jr., and P.O. Tipton opened a factory at 1764 Chelsea and began producing a fleet of fiberglass boats under the name Arrow Glass. “Arrow” paid tribute to this area’s Native-American heritage, and “glass” reflected the fiberglass hulls that shaped most of the boats made at that time — a process that was more efficient than using steel, aluminum, or wood since it allowed for sleek curves, one-piece hulls, molded-in colors, and low on maintenance.
The firm began producing fairly basic models. A 1959 catalog shows just four boats, called the Sebring, Empress, Olympus, and Daytona, ranging in length from 14 to 19 feet, but available in six bright colors: Meridian Blue, Dragon Red, Sahara Beige, Foam Green, Sail White, and Onyx Black.
After a few years, Ossorio and Schmeisser bought out Tipton’s interest in the company and became co-owners. By all accounts, their products were high-quality boats, winning numerous competitions, and after just a year or so, to meet the growing demand for their products, Arrow Glass moved to larger facilities next to the old Firestone plant in North Memphis. At the time, Ossorio told reporters, “The boating business in this area is growing fantastically. Lack of good boating water is the only thing that could hold the business back.”
Arrow Glass started out building just one boat a day, and by the mid-1970s the company was cranking out more than 5,000 hulls a year, with more than 270 employees running four production lines. Advertisements told buyers that the boats had “the design with you in mind” and stressed the quality and performance of the entire line. A 1972 catalog showed a dramatic increase in the selection available for customers. Even the most basic fishing craft came in beautifully contoured shapes and colors, with features such as locking rod storage, padded seats, high-back chairs, running lights, foam flotation built under the floor, insulated ice boxes, carpeting. The company now offered more than two dozen boats, in every color of the rainbow. That year, the top-of-the-line model was the Polaris, a 20-foot cabin cruiser with a 270-horsepower inboard engine, multi-level seating, aluminum railings, tempered-glass windshield, a full complement of instruments and controls, and genuine wood paneling.
Despite the popularity of the boats, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1979, and Memphis businessman Clarence Day purchased the business, changing its name to Day Marine. Other changes of ownership and name followed — Eldocraft and later General Marine Industries — and the plant moved to Waynesboro, Mississippi, but nothing, it seems, could keep the floundering company afloat. Arrow Glass closed for good in the early 1990s, though the boats were so well-designed and constructed that plenty of them — still sporting their distinctive arrowhead logos — can be found on lakes and rivers here.
James Cochran, today an engineer with the Crump Firm, was the compliance officer for Arrow Glass in the 1970s, making sure the boats met boating industry and federal regulations. He recalls that their most popular model during that period was the Cheetah, a 17-foot inboard-outboard. “It had a tri-hull design, and it was very responsive, very stable, and very quick,” he says. “It was probably the best boat we ever built, and in our day we were considered a top-notch builder.”
On a website devoted to American boat manufacturers (proboards.com), Cochran is the site moderator for Arrow Glass, and notes, “Arrow Glass became internationally famous for being ‘Customer Designed’ and was one of the top recreational boat manufacturers, noted for its dedication to safety and quality. Mike [Ossorio] and Harry [Schmeisser] are no longer with us, but their dream can be found worldwide in every Arrow Glass boat, and their memory lives on.”
by Lance Wiedower
On average, Americans leave nearly four days of vacation time unused every year, something the U.S. Travel Association has noticed. Katie Denis is a senior program director for the Association’s “Project: Time Off,” an effort to convince Americans to use more of their vacation time. She’s heard the argument that America doesn’t need to be France in terms of doling out vacation days. France, in fact, might have a reputation for liberal vacation policies, but all European Union countries require employers to give at least four paid vacation weeks per year.
Denis, by the way, laughs at the notion Americans are pushing to be more like France. She says a better comparison is an America from 15 years ago when U.S. workers used four more vacation days per year on average than today.
The U.S. Travel Association certainly believes there is a problem, and it’s one that starts at the top. While many managers polled say they understand the importance of taking vacations, they don’t always set a good example.
“The ability to demonstrate leadership is important,” Denis says. “Managers can be some of the worst modelers. It’s a ‘do as I say not as I do’ model. And people err on the side of caution and do what the person ahead of them will do.”
And if that means management only uses one week of an allotted three weeks off, well, employees are more apt to follow that lead.
Project: Time Off has tracked the amount of vacation time Americans use dating back to 1970. And for 30 years, the amount remained roughly the same at an average of 20 days of vacation time used each year. But then in 2000 that trend began to drop, and over the ensuing 15 years hit an average of 16 days used per year.
So what happened?
Denis says her team at first thought the data would show a decrease beginning around 2008 with the Great Recession. But the earlier decline came at a time when technology began making it harder for employees to unplug at night, on the weekend, and, possibly worse, during vacations.
“You don’t leave the office when you leave the office anymore,” she says. “Technology has made us feel we can’t disconnect even when we try to. It’s the idea that work will pile up while I’m away.”
Bruce Elliott is a manager of compensation and benefits for the Society for Human Resource Management who focuses on employee benefits such as wellness, financial, and retirement programs; health insurance; and paid time off. While technology is a first-world concern, Elliott has lived in Europe and the Middle East, and he says by far Americans are the worst at taking vacation time in his observation.
He says it’s time that companies get creative to encourage employees to use allotted time off. One of those ways is the unlimited vacation model, something Elliott said only about 2 percent of American employers use. Those companies are usually involved in technology, such as Netflix. Companies that employ young creatives find it attractive, too. And in Memphis, agencies such as Archer Malmo, which employs some 200 here and in Austin, Texas, are finding creative ways to encourage employees to take time off.
Russ Williams, CEO of Archer Malmo, pays attention to what his current employees want in a workplace, and that includes vacation time. He observed the trends and what he heard from employees and, at the end of 2015 decided to shift Archer Malmo to a flexible PTO model. That means no more separate vacation days, sick days, or personal time for things such as doctors’ appointments. There is no maximum for days taken in a year, although there is a cap on the amount of consecutive days taken without manager approval. In addition to the flexible PTO model, the offices now close during the last week of the year, a naturally slow time for business over the holidays.
“It all has to do with promoting work-life balance, treating employees like they’re trusted adults, and recognizing the real world,” Williams says. “So, for example, in your life there are some years you need a lot of time off and some years you don’t need any. … If you’re promoting work-life balance and people being accountable to their responsibilities versus the clock, it becomes natural to go to a flexible situation versus a rigid standard.”
There must be a culture of trust for anything like endless vacation or flexible PTO to work, Elliott cautions. If an employee doesn’t really believe he can take a week here, a week there, and a couple days at other times, he won’t do it. Elliott says the move to a PTO model of one bucket for all days off has been steady over the past 10 years. But he cautioned that it doesn’t work for everyone. It’s important that a company culture fit the concept.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” he says. “The younger employees get it immediately. They’re like, ‘OK, I’ve got two weeks between projects so I’ll take a week off.’ What we see with older employees is that they have a little bit of a challenge adapting to the paradigm. The first question they ask after this is announced is, ‘This is wonderful and great, but how much time can I really take?’”
At the end of the day, vacations are good to help employees come back to work refreshed, Elliott says. “We need time to reconnect with families. Research shows when you come back you’re more productive rather than just soldiering on. You might look like a hero with the organization (to not take days off) but what are you doing to your health, and are you reinforcing a culture that could be problematic in retaining employees?”
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