Saturday, January 10, 2009

September 2006: Retirement... Kinda, Sorta

As it turns out, my January 2006 letter on Pensions, Retirement and the changing nature of both was quite prophetic. On May 15 of this year, my employer, Colgate-Palmolive, offered a Voluntary Early Retirement Program (VERP) to US based employees based on age and years of service. I was smack dab in the middle of this demographic.

I had until the end of June to decide whether to accept or turn down this offer. At first, I was close to 100% sure I would be turning down the offer and continuing on at Colgate. The company is in a period of change but the change would be good for me. Customer Service and Logistics, what I do, is an area on which Colgate will be placing more emphasis on. I knew I could contribute and continue to thrive.

But, after attending a seminar on the program and as I began reading through the paperwork of the VERP offer, I realized three things. First, the incentives in the program were most impressive. That makes sense since programs such as VERP are designed to get people to change their status quo and move on.

Second, I could not believe how rooted I was to the company. I was kind of stunned to get this offer and was a bit concerned about a combination of things. I had never been without work since 1975. I had never faced any kind of layoff, buyout, or, as in this case, and early retirement program. In thinking about these things, I realized how much I had actually associated myself, my worth, with this company affiliation. I have been with Colgate for 16 years, the longest I have worked anywhere.

Lastly, VERP provided a most sobering look at my retirement planning. It was not as pretty a picture as I would have liked, i.e. there was no way I could retire and do nothing. Being on the younger end of this demographic meant there would be significant tax penalties if I tried to retire. Also, my savings were not near where I thought they had to be. Up until this offering, I was following an ostrich like, head in the sand, approach to retirement planning.

I was not alone in these realizations. I noticed the same stunned look on most others as I looked around the room in the seminars offered to help people think through the VERP. Naturally, we sought out each other and talked through what we were all feeling and thinking. Very few had done any real retirement planning beyond the savings and stock programs offered by the company. Most were also well rooted in their position and routines inside the company. After all, part of the qualifications for VERP was based on a years of service threshold.

Upon understanding both the incentives offered and the state of my retirement planning, my status immediately changed to 70% that I would stay and 30% that I would accept the VERP offer. With each passing day, the percentages changed from 70-30 to 60-40. When I hit the 50-50 mark, I realized it was inevitable that I would be accepting the VERP offer. To build on the analogy that I was deeply “rooted” to the company, I felt like I was tree that was slowly falling.

I did accept the VERP offer. But, I also knew that I had to find another job and the sooner I could find it the better. Ideally, I had to find something before the severance ran out to remain cash positive. Ideally, the sooner I could find something, the more severance I could pocket. They call this “double dipping.” In one of the seminars offered by the company to help us learn about the VERP details and to explore and define our own needs employment wise in retirement, I also learned to say, “I am retiring from a company, Colgate-Palmolive. But, I am not retiring.”

I have had to use those lines many times. Everyone hears that you are retiring and, most naturally, they congratulate you, wish you well, and ask how you will use all the free time. Travel? Golf? Cycling? What? After reciting the above mentioned lines, most understood but a few still wished me well with all my free time… go figure.

Of course, not everyone was stunned or dazed by this. There were two classes of colleagues who had huge ear to ear grins that couldn’t be wiped off. The first class, were employees whose careers had probably peaked a few year ago and were counting the days to their retirement. I know one fellow who, whenever asked how long he had to retirement would always answer, “I am not really sure but is something like two years, eleven weeks, two days, and… (pausing to look at his watch) two hours and thirty-five minutes.” Bear in mind that a large part of the big grin was due to the fact that these folks were retiring under the “old plan,” the classic pension based program. There was no deciding retire or not to retire. They were all retiring. They could not wait, though they were, in fact, waiting and hoping for such a program, like VERP, to come along. There was also no question if they would be seeking further employment. Most would not be working again. Of the few that talked about, “maybe, after a few months, finding a little something to keep them busy.” I am guessing from the tone of their half-hearted statements that they will be doing more volunteer and hobby work than gainful employment.

The second class of happy retirees to be is even more interesting. These colleagues were pretty much in my class. They were retiring from Colgate, but not retiring. They had to get another job and work for five to ten years more before they could “retire retire.” These folks were happy because they immediately saw and embraced all of this as a wonderful windfall and opportunity to move on and do something different. They weren’t stunned or dazed for even a second.

Why were they happy? Why were they taking it enthusiastically and energetically? Simply, they were viewing this as a wonderful opportunity to start anew and follow-up, finally, on the wouldas, shouldas, couldas, and oughtas that run around in our all heads regarding life and career. Here was a windfall of funds that provided the chance to explore doing something new. What was there to be upset about? This was a good thing.

There were two seminars offered that I have spoken of. One was to explain the financial and tax implications of the VERP offer so everyone would have a better understanding. Beyond retirement and financial planning, a significant part of this seminar was for everyone to realize the size of the carrot at the end of the stick. That was duly noted.

The second seminar was more life and career planning. How do you decide if you fully retire or simply retire from Colgate but need to continue one’s career? If the latter, what kind of job is best? Similar to ones current position with a similar sized company? Something smaller? Part-time? This life planning seminar first explained how most of us go through an emotional cycle when faced with a life changing or altering experience like the VERP offer. Basically, it was the SARA Model I once learned about: Shock, Anger, Rejection/Denial, and Acceptance.
Shock: Why is this happening? Why is it happening to me? Why now?

Anger: Why the *#&@ is this happening? How dare they?

Rejection/Denial: I am just going to go about my business pretending this is not happening. It isn’t real. It will go away.

Acceptance: Finally coming to terms with the reality of the situation and beginning to move on.

Once I was fairly certain that I would accept the VERP offer. I did begin a most earnest and enthusiastic job search. All the literature and even the life upon retirement seminar talked about how long such a search might take. At my level, the search was expected to take six months to a year. Yikes! With all the news of companies offering people just like me similar early retirement offers, I assumed that it would probably take all of that time. As I did not want to go cash negative on the severance, I really got into looking. I realized that it was the first time in my life I was actually seeking a position. In every position I have had until this point, the jobs came to me. It was a sobering thought.

I realized the importance and value of networking. I knew this already and the seminar confirmed it. I also knew companies posted jobs on-line and there were web based job boards either on sites like Monster or Yahoo but also with professional societies like American Society for Quality (ASQ).

I went on the ASQ web site and immediately saw the perfect job for me: Vice-President of Quality for a third party logistics provider. I was almost uniquely qualified for this having spent roughly half of my career in Quality and the other half in Logistics. Even better, the job was based in Chicago, as I was focusing my efforts on Chicago and New York based opportunities. I posted my resume and a cover letter and remember sitting back, staring at the phone expecting it ring any second. Why wouldn’t it? It was almost a perfect job and I was practically the perfect candidate. It, of course, did not ring. In fact, they never called.

At first, I thought this rather odd. But soon, I came to learn the truth about job boards and company postings. They never work. They are black holes that suck up résumés and one, for sure in my case, never hears back. They must get so many responses that they quickly fill up their candidate slate. I truly believe I would have had more luck if I were to burn my résumé in a ritual fire and recite incantations in the hope that the smoke might drift to the right place and influence people with open positions to contact me.

As badly as job boards worked, networking was the complete opposite. I called good friends, colleagues who have gone on to other companies, and valued suppliers. The network was great. The connections and referrals, as often as not to recruiters, were very helpful. In very short order, a lot of interest was generated. I was on the phone and e-mail constantly sending résumés and letters, answering specific questions, being screened over the phone. I was kind of amazed and impressed by the “buzz.”

There seemed to be a fair number of positions for Directors or Vice-Presidents of Quality or Logistics. The ones that showed interest were in New Jersey, Iowa, Illinois, and Massachusetts. As quick as something would become active, it could go away equally fast. “The company is going to go with another candidate, in another direction, or simply decided to put the search on hold for the foreseeable future.” Fill in the blank. I think I heard them all.

Through this entire time, a short three months, one position kept gaining momentum. Based on one phone interview and two face-to-face interviews, they thought I was right for the job. I thought the job was right for me. They made me an offer at the end of August and I accepted on September 5th. It is with Sanford Brands NA, a division of Newell Rubbermaid. Check out the Sanford website (www.sanfordcorp.com). You will see the various brands of… pens. What better place for me to work given my February 2005 letter? They make Sanford, Paper Mate, Waterman, and Parker. (If I can only get them to purchase Caran D’Ache.). As VP of Supply Chain, I get to run a bigger operation and it is more my show than ever.

My last day at Colgate is September 29th. My first day at Sanford is October 9th. I am beginning that quickly simply because Sanford is starting their budget process and what better way to learn about a new company than to jump right into the budget process.

I went from feeling down and worried about finding a job before the severance runs out, to the complete opposite. It has been an exciting time in which many good things happened so quickly that I truly felt the influence of a large hand, from above.

Lessons Learned:

1. Nothing is forever.

2. Looking for a job is a full time effort. It is very unlikely to find something new looking casually.

3. In terms of career change, there is only value in “I might”, “I could”, or “I oughta”, if you are truly intent to act. Otherwise, it will probably only cause frustration.

4. Sometimes you need extrinsic, like VERP, motivation to act on “I might”, “I could”, or “I oughta.”

5. As rooted as you get working someplace a long time, always bear in mind that there is a big world full of opportunities out there.

6. Never stop growing and expanding one’s skills.

7. Job boards are black holes. Networking is the only way to go.

8. The amount of junk one can accumulate seems to grow exponentially with years of service.

9. Stay up beat and enthusiastic. Embrace such changes as an adventure and an
opportunity. These things will happen no matter what your attitude, so you may as well have a great attitude.

10. #9 is easier to say than to do.

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