I exited the Interstate toward the Fordlet Hotel after a late night preparing my annual presentation to the local business leaders. My slides were finished days ago, but my words still needed massaging. I couldn’t be late; I was the star attraction.
Approaching the hotel from the back of the lot, I thought the Gray Old Lady had held up pretty well. The once blinding-white stucco had dimmed, but she was still standing strong in the 1990s. Times were different when she was built at the end of the War. Families moved to Fordlet to work at the auto plant, and when the radio plant was launched, more came.
They were good times in a booming economy, and a good time for Mom and Dad to have me. The hotel was there for us then. They held my christening there, as they did later for my sister. Then my high school graduation. My college graduation party, when they met Danielle for the first time. Later, our engagement party. Finally, our wedding reception, when Danielle’s whole family flew in from Chicago. Now the hotel served the same clientele, but different needs. There were fewer weddings, more retirement parties. Fewer christenings and bar mitzvahs, more funeral luncheons.
I rushed into the ballroom and onto the stage. The blinding spotlight on the lectern made it hard to see the rest of the room. I squinted and scanned for familiar faces. Mayor Karen Johnson was there with her staff. Bill Butterman, the local realtor and president of Fordlet’s chamber of commerce, nervously prepared his emcee notes. Pastor Eugene of Fordlet Baptist sat with his ministers. Jimmy Fallatico, forever loyal, had entrusted the family diner to his staff for this one big event.
I couldn’t find my boss, LeRoy Cook. As the senior VP of marketing and community relations, he usually sat up front, if only to serve as my reviewer. I figured he would be there soon enough, though.
I motioned to Isaac, my favorite waiter, and by the time I sat on the dais, he was holding my usual—scrambled eggs, toasted wheat bread, a side of fruit. Celebrity has its advantages, even minor celebrity in a company town like Fordlet.
As I gobbled breakfast, Bill stepped to the lectern to begin. “Thank you all for coming out to our annual meeting,” he said. “This event is never complete without an update from today’s sponsor, PackPreserve.” The applause was grateful. All the other companies were gone, and we were the only ones to foot the bill.
“You know PackPreserve’s spokesman, Nat Russo, a local boy who made good.” Bill recounted my history: how, in my senior year, my interception won the New York championship for Fordlet High. When I was named all-state, I got a full ride to the University of Illinois to study journalism. After graduating cum laude, I decided against winning Pulitzers to return to Fordlet and look after Mom and Dad. Big dreams don’t always fit into little Fordlet, so the opportunity to work at PackPreserve was good enough. Luckily, I cajoled Danielle to join me, even after a little kicking and screaming. Our twins cemented us there.
I bounced into the spotlight, shook hands with Bill and, with a single, fluid gesture, motioned for the A/V tech to bring up my slides and lower the lights.
I had to address the nagging issue that hung in the room like the dusty chandeliers. The economy was suspect. The Reagan boom was over, and there was growing talk of recession under President Bush. My job that day was to foster confidence and calm, even while PackPreserve’s numbers lagged.
“We control our destinies,” I intoned. “Business is simple; we don’t need to complicate it.” I threw out more stock phrases from my previous years. “We must face the reality of global competition. We won’t be afraid to change. We will fight bureaucracy, and use the brains of our workers.” In the light of our most recent layoffs, I had to add, “Even senior people with good results may be removed if they’re not walking the walk.”
As bread baskets passed like church collection plates and as coffee flowed into clinking porcelain cups, the caffeine and carbs combined to help me and the audience build momentum together.
“We’re not in the business of making packaging at PackPreserve. We’re in the business of making money. At times we have to hold off on that piece of equipment to keep our profits strong.” My speech kept pace with my quickening pulse. “And what do those profits produce? They keep the lights on at home. They buy meals in our restaurants. They help send our Fordlet High graduates to college. Those people come back to contribute to our community. I know. I am just one of many citizens of this town who has stayed committed to Fordlet.”
As I was wrapping up, LeRoy entered the rear of the ballroom. His glare nearly threw me off my game. Flustered, I punched the final words like notes on a bass . “Those are the results that REALLY count because they show up here in Fordlet. So thank you for the way you have supported us. In turn, we have supported YOU with a standard of living envied in this part of New York State. Now let's get out there and keep Fordlet an All-American town!”
With the adrenaline-fueled finish, I strode off to an enthusiastic response and the rhythm of hands slapping my back. LeRoy’s stern and tired face was distinct from the rest of the crowd. “I couldn’t get you on the phone last night.”
“Nice to see you, too,” I said. “No, I needed quiet to prepare, so we disconnected the phone. What’s up?”
He pulled me into a service closet for privacy and drew a long, deep breath. “We were acquired late yesterday by Borsa.”
The words made me tremble. “The Italian company?”
LeRoy nodded and I sputtered.
“For God’s sake, LeRoy, how did you let me get up there and talk about our plans for survival? I just gave these people a reprieve from their worst nightmares.” I could see Fordlet crumbling before my eyes, and there was foam around my mouth when I blurted, “For fuck’s sake, LeRoy, what are we going to do?”
He inhaled again. “I know, Nat, I know. This is about jobs lost, and lives upended, and a gaping, bloody hole where Fordlet used to be. I know.” With an air of resignation, he added, “This is what happens when you put all your eggs in one basket, and then you don’t guard that basket with your life.”
At that thought, he put his hand on my shoulder. “But this is your moment, pal. This is what you’ve trained for your whole life. You get to put the words together to keep people from jumping ship, jumping off the ledge....” He trailed off, then added softly, “Pick your metaphor.”
Looking around the closet, he said, “This is no place to talk. Let’s meet back at the office. You’ll have to work out a plan.”
I knew what “a plan” meant. It meant the blather, buzzwords, and hackneyed phrases that were the currency of us corporate communicators as we rationalized the damage we’re about to inflict. “Delivering shareholder value.” “Facing the realities of the market.” “The synergies of two strong organizations will result in a stronger better company.” And what would go unsaid: a smaller company. Fewer staff. Less money going to local diners, clothiers, hardware stores and churches. Of course, we’d still have the old chestnut of “we have always believed our people are our greatest asset, more than our buildings or equipment.” But then the biggest lie of all: “The pain will be felt across the company.” Yes, as the officers walked away with lucrative severance packages and the people on the line walked away heartbroken.
No, we couldn’t say that.
I walked to my car, my heart sinking with each step. Across the lot, the attendees drove off. Bill Butterman returned to his real estate office. Pastor Eugene headed back to prepare his Sunday sermon. Having missed his breakfast regulars, Jimmy Fallatico left to get sausage on the grill for the lunch crowd. Little did any of these poor suckers know what was ahead. Nor did I.