Monday, April 5, 2010

Annual Report Language, Translated to English

Over the years, I have contributed to many annual reports. I know that they can be confusing to read given the language that is often chosen. As a public service to all shareholders and employees out there, here are translations of key phrases you will often see in an annual report.
  1. We performed well in a difficult economy.
    Translation: As usual, we didn't make our numbers, but at least this year we have an excuse.
  2. I am pleased to report that we continue to make excellent progress on achieving our long-term goals.
    Translation: We didn't make our numbers, but we got a little closer this year.
  3. We were able to deliver shareholder value by managing our costs.
    Translation: We
    laid off employees to make sure that our investors received their dividends.
  4. We have focused our business.
    Translation: We sold off the dogs that were losing money because we didn't know how to manage them. By the way, when our current lines start to lose money, we will sell those, too
  5. In these difficult times, we experienced a lot of pain over the past year.
    Translation: We had a second round of layoffs in order to increase our profits.
  6. The pain was shared across the company.
    Translation: While we in
    executive management still received our bonuses, it was difficult to watch from our office windows as employees left the company for the last time.
  7. Our portfolio contains legacy products with a long record of success behind them.
    Translation: A lot of our lines are outmoded, so nobody buys buy them anymore.
  8. We have a healthy backlog.
    Translation: Our manufacturing is so lousy that we can't get product out the door, so the orders just keep piling up.
  9. We have grown through acquisition throughout our long and proud history.
    Translation: We don't know how to innovate, and we put no money into research and development. We know only how to buy other businesses.
  10. Our brand still appears fresh and new in the market.
    Translation: After all these years, they
    still don't know who we are.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Pony Express — On its 150th Anniversary, the Myth Endures

On April 3, 1860, rider Joseph Fry departed St. Joseph, Missouri and launched the famed and legendary Pony Express. This enterprise was designed as a speedy mail service from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, and it became the west's most direct means of east-west communication before the invention of the telegraph.

Today, the legendary Pony Express name lives on in a variety of ways. There are many memorial statues in Sacramento; Nevada (two); Utah; Wyoming; Colorado; Kansas; and Missouri (two). St Joseph, MO boasts the original and most famous statue, which was dedicated on April 20, 1940. Eagle Mountain, Utah, located on the original Pony Express Trail in Utah, has several locations and events that commemorate the Pony Express. Plus Pony Express Boulevard in Eagle Mountain, Utah may be the only street built on the original Pony Express Trail that is named after the Pony Express, or so says Wikipedia. Pony Express Days, the annual community celebration of Eagle Mountain, are celebrated the first week of June of each year. There is also the Pony Express Elementary School located in Eagle Mountain.

In more ephemeral media, a TV show titled "The Young Riders," which ran for three seasons from September 1989 to July 1992, presented a fictionalized account of a group of young Pony Express riders. The cast included Emmy winner Anthony Zerbe, Stephen Baldwin as a young "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Josh Brolin as "Wild Bill" Hickok" (who, unlike Cody was NOT a Pony Express rider), and Melissa Leo, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for "Frozen River."

Wait, there's more! McGraw Hill produced the game Pony Express Rider in 1996. And a school in Utah is named Pony Express Elementary. It is said that the school was built around the area where pony express rider rode through.

Oh, by the way, the Pony Express was a failure. But nobody tells you that.

It wasn't for lack of trying. The Pony Express was successful in reducing the time to deliver mail between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to about ten days. (Looking at that objectively, even from a 21st Century perspective, that seems really fast for the time.) The Pony Express did successfully demonstrate that a cross-country delivery system was possible all year around. But like many businesses, it was done in by technology. In this case, it was the telegraph, which made transcontinental communication possible without paper. (See, mail was threatened even then.)

The Pony Express went out of business in October 1861. The company had grossed $90,000 and lost $200,000 (according to Wired magazine, the equivalent of $4.7 million today). The Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City and connected Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California.

The demise of the Pony Express has not diminished its lore or its fabled standing in American culture. This all stems from the rugged individualism of the riders, strapping young men who could ride for hours through dangerous terrain. But in the end, these guys were no match for thin little wires carrying electrical impulses from coast to coast.

The short rise and quick fall of the Pony Express created three truths that exist today:

1. Legend is a powerful thing that can easily outlive facts, whether they pertain to an enterprise, an invention, or a person's military record.

2. Technology will almost certainly drive an existing business to its knees, especially if its mission can be fulfilled with fewer people.

3. Paper continues to be threatened as a communication medium, though its death is a long and tedious one.