Thursday, July 19, 2012

Trucking Companies Drive Home Point: Indices Can Be Misleading

Charles Dow, the first editor of The Wall Street Journal, had many prescient investing theories. One stated that a breakdown in transportation stocks presaged a downturn in the overall economy.
However, Dow's observation is being test right now. The largest players in the trucking field  -- J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Heartland Express and YRC Worldwide -- should see revenue gains between 5 and 13 percent. Yet while these large trucking companies are doing well, there is still a buildup of inventory at wholesalers, manufacturers and retailers, and this does not bode well for the entire economy.
So why the anomaly? It turns out that ONLY these large trucking companies are doing well; they are largely meeting the withered demand for trucking by themselves. Smaller companies have not been able to invest in the newer vehicles and the people needed to meet the demand. So manufacturers and retailers will be paying higher transportation prices because the trucking industry is short about 20,000 drivers (according to industry analysts).
So the lessons to be gleaned from this:
  • Old theories should be heeded, but not blindly.
  • A rising tide does not lift all boats. Sometimes the better maintained boats do better.
  • The principle of supply vs. demand certainly applies to talent: Members of the trucking industry are competing for quality drivers, which are in short supply right now.

Monday, July 16, 2012

In the Category of "What Was I Thinking?"

My friends and I got into a discussion on Facebook today on several Presidential campaign snafus that were entirely avoidable: Mitt Romney's heartfelt but vocally challenged rendition of "America the Beautiful" is now an Obama ad. Barack Obama tone deaf remark that "the private sector is doing fine" has been a Romney ad for weeks. Perhaps the biggest self-inflicted wound of all time was by Michael Dukakis when he got into a tank and... well, let the ad speak for itself.
But, really, don't our organizations do the same things when they take actions or make announcements without thinking them through? Here are some examples:
  • A company makes record profits but employees' salaries are frozen.
  • Health benefits are cut with out a rationale.
  • U.S. Olympic uniforms are made in China.
  • New Coke. (Really, do I need to elaborate on that one?)
Here's a simple example of preemptive media management: An industrial TV organization I belonged to gave a "Communicator of the Year" award to a local broadcaster. As the dinner was underway, a local TV station  -- indeed, the one where he worked -- sent a crew in to get some footage for that night's newscast. As soon as they entered the room, his beer bottle quickly, discretely went under the table. He enjoyed it again after they left.

That really wasn't so difficult. We should all give our actions that much consideration.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Recipe for Insularity

To close yourself off from the public and limit your accountability for your actions, do the following:
  • Prepare a large and loyal following.
  • Coddle your organization's insiders.
  • Blacken anyone who disagrees with you.
  • Blanch over the slightest interference from outside authorities.
  • When it all comes to a boil, cry prejudice.
  • Stew over the results of your actions.
This winning recipe has been done to perfection for such institutions as Penn State University, The Catholic Church, The Democratic Party, The Republican Party and most big-city police departments.
Warning: The final dish when left out loses its taste over time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Learning Inspiration from Jack Nicholson

I was watching the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets when I heard one of the most memorable lines, and one of the best sentiments, written for a movie over the last 20 years.
Jack Nicholson played Melvin Udall, a writer with OCD, who falls in love with waitress Carol Connelly (played by Helen Hunt). While he is awkwardly wooing her over dinner, she requests a compliment from him, mostly to counteract the insults he inadvertently inflicts on others as a result of his condition.
Melvin thinks it over, and he informs Carol that since he met her, he is controlling his OCD with medication for the first time. Carol, bewildered, asks what that has to do with her.
Melvin draws his breath and announces to Carol, somewhat gallantly, that "You make me want to be a better man." (See the scene here.)
It is one of the best compliments that Carol has ever received in her hard-knock life. And well it should be.
Who is the person for whom you want to improve? To do your best? It could be a loved one, a teacher, a coach, a boss, a colleague.
There must be a person for whom you want to give more than a passable effort. You could write a brochure that looks like the others in your marketing department, or you could create a breakthrough document. You can lay brick to collect your daily pay, or you could help build one of the most beautiful walls ever.
But who is the person YOU want to make better? Maybe that is the more pertinent question.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Memoriam: Robert D. "Bob" Reif

Bob Reif smiles proudly upon his
family: (from left) Eric, Amy and Melissa.
A little backstory: My friend since age 13, Bob Reif, died of complications from a lung transplant on June 24m 2012. At the request of Bob's wife, Amy, and his children, Eric and Melissa, I proudly delivered this eulogy for Bob at at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, VA on June 26. I spoke these words when I stepped to the lectern and was impressed by the size of the crowd gathered.

Wow! From this vantage point, I am able to see so many people who were touched by Bob. From where you are, I ask that you look quickly to your left... your right... behind you and in front of you.

Do you see all those people with us today? I guarantee that you all have one thing in common. I'll bet Bob made every one of you laugh and be happy at one time or another.

My wife, Marie, and I share a favorite memory that illustrates Bob audacious sense of humor. It was at the funeral of his father, Martin. When Marie and I came up to the casket to express our condolences, Bob's mother, Annalise, looked wistfully around at the crowd -- the many people in attendance -- and she said, "Look at all these people. Isn’t it nice? Marty would have enjoyed seeing them."

Bob looked at the casket, smiled at us and said, "Yeah, in fact he would have preferred it."

He had few filters, no sense of shame and little sense of propriety. And that was because he understood that it is not the years in your life that are important, but rather the life you give your years.

Bob's mind operated at the speed of light. He was so fast and he had stored so much information that he could make a pun or a joke or an incisive and insightful observation seemingly instantaneously. It was hard to keep up with him. But along with a fast mind, Bob had persistent values. Those of us who knew him, as I have for more than 45 years, know that that he saved his biggest barbs for politics. He was unabashedly, unapologetically and unilaterally liberal. And Democratic. Bob is the only person I know who could have his son wear a T-shirt that read, "Friends don't let friends vote Republican."

By the way, if you are Republican, please don’t take offense at this. I have been on the opposite side of Bob’s politics, and I am left of center myself. By the time Bob was done with me, I looked like Rush Limbaugh to him.  If you’re offended, we can blame Bob today.

But I also understood that Bob's values came from the wellspring of charity and altruism that has been the hallmark of modern American Judaism over the course of the 20th century through the present.

You see, even as Bob grew more successful in his life, material things never really possessed him. Instead, he continued to care genuinely for others who were less fortunate than he was. And he believed that we needed to care for another. He lived the words of Psalm 82: "Defend the cause of the weak; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

It speaks well of Bob to say that these qualities are considered old-fashioned today. As the chairman of Epstein Becker Green so beautifully expressed in an e-mail to the firm yesterday, Bob was loyal, fair, committed, and an eager mentor to new members of the firm. In the tumult of everyday life, it was not often about him. Amy, Eric and Missy, his brother Gerry, his mother and father, his mother-in-law Kitty, and we, his friends... all of us came first.

I can attest to this from personal experience. During the course of his fight with pulmonary fibrosis, Bob learned that I was also ill. From his hospital bed, he wrote a message to me that encouraged me to fight and beat the disease. Even in his most challenging time, it was not about him.

No words that I or anyone will give you today can remove the hurt, the betrayal we all feel after such a promising period after Bob’s transplant. But here in the presence of God, we can choose, over time, to thank Him that the life of Bob’s years was so abundant with the virtues of
joy and wit…
benevolence and selflessness…
honor, idealism and integrity…
his ongoing wonder and curiosity for all the world has to offer,
and in the end, courage.

And God, please take Bob with the open and generous arms that he extended to so many of us. But however You take him... please don't take him too seriously. I guarantee You; he can make YOU laugh, too.