AN END RUN FOR BIG SODA
A tale of standard corporate operating procedure played out in the life of a high school buddy.
The names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.
Tom Schultz* was a cohort of long standing when we left high school in 1975, yet unlike me and others – who bopped around from one joker-job to another – Tom latched on to a full time salaried position at a local bottling plant, toeing the line for a Fortune 500 beverage company I’ll call Big Soda. The ‘Big’ moniker is not inaccurate; market capitalization was among the top three such companies in the U.S. who cranked out a nutritionally worthless but highly profitable line of beverages. As an aside, his employer wasn’t Coca-Cola. Lucky for him? Hardly; they, like their sharkish bedfellows, sawed the same worker corpse-strewn bloodied waters of the American business world. Read on.
Tom’s was a pretty good ride, especially for those first few years, as the pay was a bit better than what the standard high school grad could knock down – and his revelations into the machinations of corporate America, while humbling and infuriating, were also illuminating. It was an important wake-up call to the rest of us as expendable potential widgeteers trying to enter the full-time workforce.
Tom’s experience — and enthusiastic anecdotes as an avid company man — gave us a peek into the minds of the rich/owning/ruling class and how they operate, think and connive to keep themselves at the top of the food chain.
But let’s talk about Tom — a deeply religious young man who neither smoked nor drank, assiduously avoided the rampant recreational drug-dabbling of his peers, didn’t cuss, gamble, backbite or hold grudges. He never missed a day of work without a life-or-death reason. Those superlative qualities alone would put him in the upper 99th percentile of employees, and head-and-shoulders above the rest of his peers — especially yours truly! (I worked in a gas station.)
Tom Schultz could certainly have been considered an ace in the hole for any company.
And boy, didn’t they know it. Taking full advantage of his good nature and strong character, management milked Tom for every nickel they could get out of him. His efforts were noticed, and he crept up into lower management.
As he slowly climbed the ladder, being on a salary meant the clock didn’t necessarily stop running at the 8-hour point, and Tom rarely said no to what amounted to forced overtime. Saturdays were a specialty; he got up and went in without grumbling. His long tenure and familiarity with equipment meant that when something broke at odd hours, he would hustle down to the plant and fix it.
He moved among the disgruntled on the shop floor, and remained likeable enough to be trusted.
When brand new shiny trucks and equipment showed up, Tom noted how his co-workers grumbled, “they’ll spend money on anything but the help,” though Tom harbored little resentment. He tried to gloss over negativity with his consistent upbeat attitude, seldom succeeding with his peers, who soothed their simmering daily discontent with the palliative of psycho-babble talk radio, courtesy of host Howard Stern.
On the coattails of his coworkers pithy revelations, however, one can assume that if Big Soda could fully automate the plant, eliminating employees entirely, (an investor’s dream!), they’d be delighted to do so!
But that would be a tad more expensive than moving operations overseas to penny-wage countries, which is no doubt still happening full tilt as you read this.
This is the modern day ‘work ethic’, and would be right in line with a company that would sooner pour surplus or excess beverage down the drain than give it away.
One day in late 1988, Tom showed us a letter that had been distributed to the workers at the plant, denoting a possible change of ownership. It was signed by the then-current owners I’ll call the Brinx brothers, who hailed from a very wealthy local family. One of the toys in their box was the Big Soda bottling operation.
Actually, this was the first time any of us had the ‘Death Tax’ thrust into our consciousness, and this letter was a real piece of artwork. In that precious text, which I wish I had copied — the Brinx brothers railed against the travesty of ‘confiscatory’ taxation, which threatened to chip away at their hoarded pile. The tone of the letter was predictably haughty, pompous and vindictive.
Admittedly, a 55% tax on inherited property is pretty outrageous, but I couldn’t help marvel at the irony: multimillionaires explaining their ‘trouble’ to guys who were making $8. to $10 bucks an hour!
So the silver-spooners’ settled-for win-win was to broker a sale of the plant back to the parent company, a move they capitulated to somewhat begrudgingly. I guess it was around that point that the sharks came in.
All told, Tom sold Big Soda 30 years of his life, a model employee to the end. Do you think Big Soda would have recognized exceptional service and dedication, then rewarded it accordingly?
If so, you’d better guess again.
Of course his story would have a happy ending if it hadn’t ended so badly. You see, Big Soda didn’t actually care what happened to their lifelong, honest-to-a-fault employee; their real loyalty, in keeping with the suffix “corporation” — was to their shareholders.
What Big Soda saw in Tom’s case was a liability: a thirty year man up for retirement. Their strategy? Simple: boot him before he can collect on what was rightly his. Barring a legitimate excuse for firing him, make one up.
Unbeknownst to Tom, a sneaky plan was in the works and had been for some time. It involved tweaking some little details in the periodic tallying of product. The trap was set, and Tom and his immediate superior — surprise! the two highest salaries — were summarily fired.
I quizzed him, shortly after that sad 30th anniversary of his hiring, as to why he didn’t fight it. Oh, sure, he had gotten a decent severance bonus, but retirement? You’re dreamin’!
Frankly, he didn’t want to subject himself to the negativity of a direct face-off with mendacious management, preferring instead to take his lumps and move on.
Big Soda won that one. They had successfully cheated their way out of their part of the bargain – but then again, who ever said there had been a bargain to begin with?
Is Tom’s an isolated case? I’d venture a NAY. His worker-corpse litters a crowded trail, no doubt.
For this is how great fortunes are made – or at least kept – these days, and we’re all to blame: every boomer who owns mutual funds that buy a basket of ‘blue chip’ stocks probably has more than a smattering of holdings in Big Soda and its ilk. But after hearing Tom’s story – and further, within the context of Enron and Anderson Accounting – we may all want to rethink our definition of “bull market”.
I call Tom once in a while and ask if those brash Brinx brothers have graced the latest issue of Forbes.
David A. Hopkins is a freelance writer and tree trimmer living in Colrain, Massachusetts, where he enjoys NOT hunting and fishing.
Davey H. is a freelance writer and tree trimmer who enjoys NOT hunting and fishing.