Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Call to Greatness

The most challenging and satisfying writing assignments of my life, to date, have been for Joan Anderson Growe, Minnesota's Secretary of State from 1975 to 1999, when she ran for the United States Senate from Minnesota in 1984.

Challenging in that Ms. Growe was taking on Minnesota's male-dominated political and media structure to be the state's first woman elected in her own right to the U.S. Senate (who's making dinner for your kids tonight?). Satisfying in that Joan, as a great teacher (her profession) and perfectionist (her upbringing), always gave her absolute best and deserved the same from those who served her.

I wrote speeches, talking points, Q&A, and ad copy (print, radio & TV) for Joan and coordinated her debate prep. I was also the media advisor and traveling aide. She won a night and day (22 ballot) contest for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party endorsement and a contested party primary that followed.

We had always hoped to finish the general election within 8-points of the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, Minnesota's own former Senator and Vice President, Walter Mondale. Sadly, 1984 was the year of the Reagan landslide presidential re-election and Mondale carried his home-state Minnesota by an eyelash. Joan was soundly defeated by the incumbent Republican U.S. Sen., Rudy Boschwitz.

Joan was and is a brilliant speech-maker. She cares about words. First, she wanted to be sure of the substance. She would not accept a speech line, a premise, a point to be made without first poking holes in it. Second, she wanted the logical construct to make sense...not just to her but also to the half-dozen other people she would test the speech on. Finally, she wanted her delivery to be flawless. In other words, Ms. Growe was and is a speech-writer's dream as there is nothing more satisfying than having a client who cares as much about her words as you do.

Speech-writing is often a collaborative effort. Two of our finest collaborators were Joan's deputy and longtime friend, Elaine Voss, and Joan's friend and a media genius, D.J. Leary. Elaine settled arguments (yes, Joan cared enough about what she was saying to stand her ground). D.J. taught us what Hubert Humphrey had shared with him; Every Speech Is A Call to Greatness (don't miss the opportunity).

Truth is, Joan Anderson Growe would have been a great Senator (HHH was one of her first and fondest promoters!). Great, in part, because she never accepted conventional wisdom as gospel.

Joan would say, Bob: look at those statistics again. America doesn't have a crime problem. America (with 90+ percent of crimes committed by men) has a MALE PROBLEM.

Touring a Nicaraguan farm, Joan advised her traveling party to be wary as here, supposedly, we were viewing a working dairy operation yet the cow barn had no cats.

Finally, Ms. Growe loved to sum up her pioneering attitude by closing her remarks with a paraphrase of Bobby Kennedy's (George Bernard Shaw) quote: Some people see things as they are and ask, "Why?" I dream of things that never were and ask, "Why not?"

Joan Anderson Growe. Trailblazer & friend.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Take Your Mark-downs Early

My first job in business (1978-1979 and one speech in 1980) was as a communications analyst for the Minneapolis-based retailer Dayton Hudson (that we now know as Target Corporation). Part of my job was to write speeches for Steve Pistner, the president and chief operating officer of Dayton Hudson. Steve had won the #2 job at Dayton Hudson by steering Target through the recessions of the early 1970's.

The unconfirmed legend was that things had been so tough for Target during the recessions that some in Dayton Hudson had considered jettisoning their Target division. If that was true, then Steve Pistner was the executive who "saved" Target, now America's #2 retailer.

Pistner was a Humphrey of business. A person of great ideas. A degree in psychology. Steve would tell me: Bob, we don't talk about bed sheets and display racks. We talk about what motivates our customers and how we can serve them better.

The Pistner formula for Target coming out of the recessions successfully was to set and achieve industry-leading standards. Among discount retailers, Target stores would become the cleanest (still to this day, walk into a Target at 7 pm on a Saturday, then check out the nearest Wal-Mart...where would you shop?). Target would have the clearest sight-lines and signage so that customers could immediately read and navigate the stores. Target would always be in-stock on top-selling and advertised merchandise. Customers might come back once for a missing item, but never come back twice.

Among the lessons Pistner drew from managing through recessions: (1) keep your overhead low...don't lard on expenses (staff) during the good times; (2) take your mark-downs early...we knew within 6-months of opening a department store that it was too difficult for customers to navigate...should have blown it up and started over and, (3) if you have to work for a living there is no better job than managing a troubled company...at least you'll get credit for the turn-around.

Steve said his best speech was in 1980 to the Young Presidents Organization of Minneapolis on "The Store of the Future." He told them that the wheel-of-retailing constantly turned to give customers better goods at lower prices. He bemoaned department stores operating at a loss 9-months of the year to make their profits during the holiday season.

Pistner's Store of the Future would minimize operating costs by eliminating the stores themselves. Remember, he was speaking pre-Web. He proposed video kiosks in 7/11 stores updated weekly with new disks displaying the latest merchandise offerings. Customers would view the products on the disks, place their orders, and have their choices delivered to their homes or offices from a regional merchandise warehouse.

So in the summer of 1980, Steve Pistner suggested that the next big opportunity in retailing was to dramatically reduce real estate, energy and staffing costs by making it possible for customers to select their merchandise through a video (disk kiosk) and receive it at their home or office. Amazon?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Rising Sun

My name is Bob Meek. I'm a writer. The first person I wrote for was Hubert H. Humphrey, a former Vice President (1965-1969), who also served as a United States Senator from Minnesota (1949-1965 and 1971-1978). I wrote for Humphrey in 1975 and 1976. Political speeches. Graduation speeches. Letters. News releases.

Humphrey embodied optimism. I listened to him deliver political speeches dozens of times from 1970 to 1974. I hung on his every word. I marveled at the breadth and detail of his knowledge.

Humphrey had grown up in South Dakota during the Great Depression (the first one). He worked behind the counter in his dad's pharmacy. They knew their world depended on customers. Times were tough. Jobs and farm income were hard to come by. Long-time customers would come in for their medicines and be short on the cash to pay for them. Hubert's dad was generous in extending credit.

One of the Senator's favorite quotations during the recessions of the early 1970's came from Carl Sandburg, the great American poet:

"I see America, not in the setting sun of a black night of despair ahead of us, I see America in the crimson light of a rising sun fresh from the burning, creative hand of God. I see great days ahead, great days possible to men and women of will and vision."
Carl SandburgUS biographer & poet (1878 - 1967)

Humphrey would conclude: As we will it so shall it be. A nation without a vision shall perish. A people with hope will triumph.

Good words for our times.