Sunday, January 31, 2010
January 2010: New Work & Ara2
The Unemployment Story: Last month I wrote about the marriage of my children. I innocuously wrote “I came to realize that in a few years, people will remember that both the Gavoor children married in 2009 and not that it was the year of my unemployment.” This little statement drew a fair amount of attention. People were somehow surprised to hear I was out of work or not working.
So, for the first time in six years I have been writing this letter I am extending one letter into the next. While the December 2009 letter was about both of my children getting married that year. This letter will be dedicated to explaining what happened career-wise and what is happening now. I thought I had written about this or at least alluded to it in a few letters in the past fourteen months. Perhaps I alluded quite well but have simply been deluded in believing everyone reads every letter as soon as it hits their e-mail.
So, what happened? What is happening?
I took an early retirement from Colgate-Palmolive in September, 2006. It was a special Voluntary Early Retirement Program that had the objective of reducing headcount in a win-win kind of way. As is the case in such programs, incentives were provided to lure people like me into volunteering. I volunteered but needed to find another job for two reasons. First, I was simply too young to out and out retire. Secondly, I was financially unable to out and out retire… and maintain the lifestyle to which I thought I was accustomed.
Therefore, I embarked on a job search. It was really the first time I ever had to do that. In retrospect, that is kind of a remarkable statement. I had never had to look for a job. Offers and opportunities always found me. I began to suspect that I did not know how lucky I had been.
The luck continued.
I was amongst the first of the Colgate Voluntary Early Retirement class to find a new job. In August of 2006, a full two months before actually retiring, I accepted a new job with Newell Rubbermaid’s Office Products Group as Vice-President - Supply Chain. Cool. That was easy. It truly was. I was feeling pretty good about myself. While I was certainly skilled, qualified, and ready to take such a position, I also have to acknowledge some basic facts that made it both lucky and easy. The economy was percolating quite well in those days and there were significantly more open positions than people looking. Or at least, that is how it seemed.
Life at Newell was pretty good that first fifteen months. I was able to make some excellent contributions. I inherited an organization with five director/manager open positions. We were able to staff up in three months and assembled a good team. Whereas 2006 was the worst year in terms of inventory management and customer service the company, 2007 was the best year, ever, for customer service and we stabilized inventory. All of this was due to the changes our team made and implemented.
We prepared the organization for an SAP implementation which happened in October 2007. As ERP implementations go, it was relatively painless at go-live. There was pain but that came over the next few months. We had warehouse management issues at one of our warehouses because the RF system that ran the bar code readers worked intermittently. Also, we went live without a report system in place. If you are not familiar with ERP systems, you might wonder if this is a big deal. It is huge. Financial reports were generally available. But the non-financials such as Customer Service and the reports we use for Inventory planning and management, were not available. I recall one of my keys guys saying it was “like bowling during a power outage.” Indeed it was.
Service suffered and inventory levels wallowed. Our customers never went out of stock, thankfully. So, we were getting them their orders but not necessarily on-time and not necessarily in the first shipment. Inventory was definitely too high, but we did not have the visibility in the system to seriously build in the plans to bring it down.
For office supply firms, June is the peak ship month. It is when product is shipped to the stores as they stocked up for their August back to school sales. We were very worried about our ability to provide decent service. But, due to having an excellent team, we pulled through with average service and no lost sales.
We spent the most of 2007 building up reporting. The landscape was rife with all the infighting between functions like the Supply Chain and the IT implementation team. The fighting was over resources. The implementation team was interested in the next business to get the ERP and not so worried about finishing up the pervious implementation. We finally got what we needed and recovered to where we were going into SAP eleven months after implementation.
2007 was further complicated by a move by the corporation in Global Business Units. It fit most of the corporation, except for Office Products. For us, they created four Global Business Units where there should have only been two maybe three. It was misguided and it paralyzed the organization on top of all the SAP issues. It was simply too many moving parts.
To make the story short, our president and HR VP left, some might say forced to leave. Then three more of the team were let go in October 2008 including yours truly. Only our CFO remained and she left at the end of last year. The group executive that orchestrated this mass change wanted his own team in place. He got his wish. But, he was summarily let go in December 2008.
Well, this was the first time I was actually let go. I was pleased with the severance package but rightfully worried about the economic conditions. October 2008, if you recall, was the month in which the US economy melted down. It was the worst time ever in my adult life to be without a job. If they had done this a few months earlier, I might have already had found a job and been dealing with the economic meltdown someplace else.
Up in the Air Sidebar: On January 8, 2010, we went to the movies. We went to see Up in the Air starring George Clooney. Clooney plays an extreme version of a road warrior. His character, Ryan Bingham, is a corporate downsizer which means he goes all over the country firing people so their bosses do not have to deal with it. Having only spent 40 days at “home” which happens be Omaha, Ryan is more comfortable living out of hotels, planes, rental cars, restaurants, and bars then being at home. He has very little contact with his family and lives an unusually insular life with which he has somehow become accustomed.
I found the move both inspiring and depressing. It was depressing because of all the scenes of Ryan firing people. It was painful to watch the varied reactions. The common themes were disbelief, shock to have this happening after X number of years of dedicated service, and wondering what they were going to do next and how they were going to tell their families.
Been there, done that, had it happen to me, and never liked any of it all.
On top of all this, somehow Ryan Bingham, had time to both write a book and manage to create a speaking tour around the theme of his book. The book was about ridding oneself of all the things and people in our life so that we could just live in the world of work, unburden by possessions and emotions. He used a metaphorical question of “What do you carry in your backpack?” to drive these points. The message was stupid and blandly delivered.
Part of his message to those he was firing was that this firing was the beginning of the next phase of their lives. It is true that we become accustomed to our work lives, complacent and used to the surroundings and routine. Ironically, Ryan was telling people what someone should have been telling him. He needed to be fired out his complacent comfortable and most empty existence.
So what inspired me in watching this sad commentary on our times? I did like the fact that Ryan was able to blend his despicable career with becoming an author and professional speaker.
That is in part what I am trying to do with this next phase of my career.
My firing was a good wake up call. I am not sure I have entirely woken up yet. But I am in the process. I got to the work of re-writing my resumé, learning to network, and then actually networking. I was decent at it and was getting better. I got interviews and interest but no offers resulted. It was a time of highs and lows. I felt good when there were things percolating and interviews to be had. I felt real bad when the pipeline suddenly emptied and it was back to square one. That happened at least three times.
Ara Surenian & Cadent Resources Group, LLC: Upon moving to Chicago, my friend Ken Hachikian asked that I meet with another Armenian fellow, Ara Surenian. Before fully having the spirit of networking that I have learned to embrace this past year, I was happy to oblige Ken. I respect his intellect and friendship. Ara came by my office at Newell. We spent an hour or so talking. Ara told me about his consulting business and the software he had developed to help companies, especially smaller companies, better manage their inventories. The name of his company is Cadent Resources and the software tool is DemandCaster.
We hit it off pretty well and became instant friends. With my “transition,” Ara and I began to talk more about collaboration. Being a reader of this letter, Ara suggested that we take his blog to the next level. That was an easy yes. I began authoring and co-authoring blog offerings with Ara for over a year.
Ara gave me a short consulting assignment to whet my appetite. It was a lot of fun. It was much more fun doing something real than looking for a job. In this one week assignment, I also learned a great and fundamental lesson of the solo consultant: There is no one to delegate any of the work too. Seriously and hilariously, my first impulse upon getting the assignment was to reach for my cell phone and to call people who no longer reported to me and dole out the work.
As the job search became more and more dismal and depressing, Ara and I seriously talked about collaborating on the consulting side using the wonderful DemandCaster software Ara developed. I hemmed. I hawed. I was afraid of this or that. I had always worked for a company and being on my own sounded scary. How would I sell? How would I live if I didn’t sell? I felt like I was standing on a cliff overlooking an abyss.
Then in July I took that step. It was not a cliff or an abyss. It was stepping off of a curb… nothing changed. I even used the same networking skills I was using in trying to get a job to generate new business. It is way more fun trying to generate new business than looking for a job. When I was looking for a job, I felt like I was in a batting cage practicing and practicing. When I am selling our services I feel like I am in a real game taking swings at real pitches. Why the difference? I do not know but that is how I feel.
I was lucky to begin right away with a client that I thought would be a good start. This client keeps asking me to do more and extending my engagement. For this I am very thankful.
It has been a lot of fun. I am fond of saying “way more fun than the cash flow justifies.” We have a pretty good mission and positioning of our little company. Ara has spent the past three months upgrading the DemandCaster tool. We are ready to launch it with a series of Webinars to both advertise the company and communicate the enhanced functionality of the tool.
I prepared a three part Webinar series entitled Supply Chain Physics. This series codified and communicated a concept that I have used the past ten year. Basically, I say that the Supply Chain’s role is to move and deliver the right products to the right place in the right quantities. These products move in space and time and are therefore subject to the Supply Chain Laws of Physics. These laws define and govern our Supply Chains just as the laws of Physics, as we studied in High School and College, define and govern the behavior of projectiles and other objects moving through space and time in the “real world.” The webinars have had good attendance and you can watch them on http://www.demandcaster.com/Events/Archived_Presentations_-_Table_of_Contents.aspx
We have also leveraged our love of writing and supply chain to take our company blog to the next level. Our goal is to post weekly. I believe the content of our blog is better than any of our competitors. Check it out: http://blog.demandcaster.com/
Ara Surenian is a great fellow. I could not ask for a better partner or mentor into the world of management consulting. I admire his work ethic, honesty, integrity, and easy going approach.
Teaching: Also, to supplement income, I decided in Q3 2009 to pursue teaching mathematics or supply chain related courses at night. I looked at the College of Lake County, a local community college, the University of Phoenix, and the Keller Graduate School of Business which is part of DeVry University. I am happy to say that beginning this month; I am teaching two sections of Elementary Statistics at the College of Lake County. It is fun and exciting to be back in the classroom after so many years.
Jobs opened up at the College of Lake County mostly due to the economy. Community Colleges are very cost effective options for those looking for a college education. Their enrollment increased to the point where approximately seventy adjunct professors were hired.
When I first taught first as a teaching assistant and then as an adjunct, it was all chalk and talk. Now, the teaching is multi-media using white boards and power points. Problems are solved using Excel on PCs and on TI-85 graphing calculators. It is different, exhilarating, and fun. Teaching four nights a week has taken all the slack out of my schedule. I am almost adjusted to this!
Ara Topouzian: It was early January when I settled on the topic of this letter. I knew that I would be writing a several hundred words on Ara Surenian. I also knew that I would hear from another friend Ara Topouzian. He would complain, “Hey, WTF, you write about another Ara that you have only known for three years??? What about me? You have known me for over thirty five years. Loogit.” We always add the Loogit when we talk to each other in homage to one Ned Apigian. I knew that I would have to write an equal number of words about Ara or never hear the end of it… seriously… NEVER EVER HEAR THE END OF IT.
So, I decided to include a section on Ara Topouzian. Just as I made that decision, it was like Ara sensed it and called me. He called to complain that I had not mentioned him in my December letter. It was about the fifth or sixth time he had complained about this letter where I mentioned Mike Mossoian or that letter where I profiled George Mouradian. It really is one of the many gags we have we have going back and forth over a number of years.
In the case of the December letter, Ara had a little, teensy weensy, point. When we lived in Bloomfield Hills and had our children, we live less than two miles from the Topouzian’s who were close family friends. Those who have young children and try to maintain any kind of active social life know finding and retaining good babysitters is on-going concern. We were fortunate to find Ara and use him on occasion for what seemed like several years.
The reliability and effort Ara brought to babysitting certainly speaks to his upbringing. His parents, Armen and Norma, definitely instilled great values and high principles in Ara. One might also argue that his availability might have been due to his lacking of a social life back then. But, I would categorically deny that on two counts. First, it is flat out not true. Secondly, I would never ever write that as it might offend my good friend. He knows I would never do that.
Ara became a good friend for a couple of reasons. First, he is just a great person with a great comedic view of things. He is even a bigger fan of The Three Stooges than I am. Secondly, he got bit by the music bug: The Armenian music bug. He claims it was because I was always playing the music when I drove him home after babysitting. I am certain that was a catalyst but perhaps not the main motivator.
Ara learned to play the kanun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanun_%28instrument%29 ) and began playing and booking jobs. He took things to a completely different level when he launched American Recording Productions, www.arpmusic.com, in 1991to both produce and sell CDs. Not only would he sell the CDs he produced, but sold the Armenian and Middle Eastern CDs of other artists and labels he admired such as Harold Hagopian’s Traditional Crossroads. www.arpmusic.com
Ara is very entrepreneurial. He is a natural marketer and salesman. He used these skills to build American Recording Productions. He recorded with a wide variety of musicians including two CDs yours truly. To promote his CDs and music, he would play in book and music stores. He even got a grant from the State of Michigan Council of the Arts (presumably back when they actually had a budget) to teach a seminar on Middle Eastern music in the local schools, children’s museums, and other venues.
Ara was so entrepreneurial that I actually dubbed him the Armenian P.T. Barnum. I even sent him a biography of the great Phineas T.
Ara was truly P.T. Barnum when American Recording Productions was his sole personal and business interest. It has waned a bit as he embarked on his career. Ara is currently Economic Development Director at City of Novi, Michigan.
Like Ara Surenian, Ara Topouzian is a great friend and musical colleague. We have great fun whenever we are together. I do hope that I have written enough here to keep him quiet for awhile…