Business Obits, I
At Inc. magazine, where I once worked, it’s always been a foundational belief that readers learn the most important lessons from stories about the successful practices of growing companies. While this may be arguably true (though for a smart analysis of this see The Halo Effect, both book and website), I wondered whether readers would be as just well served with stories of companies that failed. Not necessarily failure in the sense of stupid errors and willful deceit; but simply, companies run by smart people with integrity who, for reasons greater than their enterprise, couldn’t make things work. I wrote the first business obit at Inc, and the magazine continued the tradition for a while. In the meantime I’d like to note two terrific recent obits.
For today, I point to Hanging It Up, a Fortune article by David Whitford, a gifted writer who I had the privilege of working with at Inc. Through a history of graceful work about the human side of enterprise (just do a search of Fortune and Inc.), Whitford has earned himself the reputation as a go-to guy for business stories with color and complexity. His story about the recent closing of one of the last domestic hanger factories is essential reading. Sure, the company erred, but one gets the sense that in the face of the “flat world” described by other writers, this plant was destined to fall prey to larger forces.
This story doesn’t work too hard on making a global point, however. Rather, it focuses on the messy and somewhat capricious tale of a shuttered factory. It’s all too rare for a reporter covering a “notable” business story to actually go out and talk to shop-floor or other front-line workers. Here’s a great passage from the closing portion of his article.
On my last morning in Monticello, I met Green for coffee at Donna’s Place on Main Street. Green lives with his girlfriend, his daughter, and his 6-month-old grandson. He has small blue eyes, a red goatee, and a jaw that’s clenched most of the time. After 22 years at Laidlaw, Green is collecting unemployment and going to trade school in Janesville, working toward a certificate in industrial maintenance. He’s not learning anything new: it’s just that no one will hire him without the certification. His tuition is covered by a state re-training program, but the unemployment doesn’t cover his bills. “I have a mortgage,” he says, “vehicle payments, heat, electricity. Right now I have a choice of taking [health] insurance or eating”—he’s chuckling—“so I chose eating.”
Great writing relies on clarity, directness, economy of detail, and color. It’s all there.
Next obit: Typo, a forthcoming memoir set in the typesetting industry.
Posted by tom at March 20, 2007 06:36 PM