Small Business

Warm Hearts Defy a Cold, Hard Year


By Lisa Bergson The holidays are quieter than usual this year. Business is bad -- way, way down, causing me to lay off close to 20% of our staff and impose four-day work weeks and other austerity measures. Many have taken on second jobs, and some wives have gone back to work. But, despite the gloomy economy, warmth, cheer, and slightly risquood humor prevails at our annual holiday party.

Employees and their families eat at big, round, brightly decorated, rented tables set up in the middle of the plant floor. The buffet of catered turkey with all the fixins runs dangerously low on certain dishes. "These are men. They like mashed potatoes," Terri Lasher, who just celebrated her 22nd year on the floor, advises me. "They don't like the rice." (Fancy wild rice with raisins and cranberries.)

Red-and-white paper honeycomb balls dangle from the white rafters. A week ago, sensor builders Stan and Jeff fetched the tree. "It's real nice," says Stan Schultz, sporting a wide grin. "It smells good, like oranges." Truth is, I don't notice a scent, but the tree is pretty and full.

LESS-THAN-GORGEOUS GEORGE. Every year, we devote a lunch hour to trimming it, everybody munching on chicken wings. Bulb-shaped photos of George Grega, our dour-faced plant manager, are big favorites. "I have to go hang some Georges," says Calvin Krusen, director of engineering, chafing when a product-planning meeting ran late.

Aside from all the planning and decorating, the employees participate even more than usual this year. Stan, the house crooner, sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Seated beside me, MEECO alum Pat Walcott, 67, breaks into tears. I put an arm around her as my eyes mist up. "I'm sorry," she says later, her huge cornflower-blue eyes luminous as a child's. "I attended a funeral yesterday, and it all just got to me."

The mood quickly shifts as Santa shows up and he, along with several employees' children, give out gifts from and to everybody. "Whatever happens, don't say 'Thanks, Dad'," Chris Cotellese aka Santa forewarned daughter, Kirstin. Our door prizes, a mix of DVDs, palm pilots, and digital cameras -- electronics, as befits a semiconductor-industry supplier -- draw oohs and aahs.

LOVED AFTER ALL. To my surprise, I receive many gifts, from candles to crystal candlestick holders to Christmas cookies (homemade, of course). The employees mustn't all hate me for being the hatchet woman! Indeed, their spirit comes through as they pass out lyrics to a MEECO/Tiger Optics version of the 12 Days of Christmas they secretly composed, featuring a "George Grega on our Christmas tree" and a chorus of "Five decades strong!" I like that.

"Hey, Judie, Jim just won a blonde in a bathing suit!" Kelly Gaydos, our notoriously smart-mouthed purchaser, hollers to Jim Turner's wife as we play our traditional White Elephant Game. We stand around a long row of tables arrayed with castoffs -- and sometimes a good bottle of booze -- and take turns rolling the dice to see who ends up with what. When it comes to certain highly sought items, the game can get pretty vigorous. Recently feuding, my newlywed assistant, D.J., and our newly-in-love production manager, De'Shell, battle with glee over four red cube-shaped candles that spell out LOVE.

Jim and Judie are both in their sixties. "I'm not going to play the White Elephant game," says the retired Judie. "I might say something awful about somebody's treasure."

BUSSING THE BOSS. "It's all junk," I assure her. "That's why we're giving it away." Judie is too far across the plant to notice Jim's new Barbie doll. And Kelly soon gets her share of ribbing when she wins a joy stick. Her 5-year-old, Alexandra, a skinny, kinetic little Kelly look-and-act alike, plays with shy and lovely Alexandra Mallon, 6, while their parents exchange good-natured barbs.

Small and bent from age, Lydia Jede, 78, another MEECO alumna, who worked for my father and then me, hugs me tight before leaving. "I'm sorry I didn't buy you anything," she says, squinting through thick glasses. "Oh, Lydia, just having you here is present enough for me. But don't stop baking those cookies!" I tease her as always. "I love you, Lisa," she says as I walk her to the parking lot.

The day after the party, I find Ron Ray at the side door on my way into work. A grizzled old service guy, he's among the skeleton crew working Fridays to support our customers. "Merry Christmas," I say. I rarely talk to Ron.

"I just had the best present of all," he grins. "My granddaughter was born two hours ago." Smack! He kisses me on the lips (These things don't happen to male bosses.), which might not be so strange if this weren't his ninth grandchild.

BURSTING BUBBLES. Other than the bench where he's working, Ron keeps the plant lights off to save electricity. Late in the afternoon, I hear a child's voice coming from the dark recesses of the plant: "La. La-la." I walk toward the back of our 17,000-sq.-ft. factory and see a tiny solitary figure jumping and jumping, a ghost of myself. It's Caroline, Calvin's 4- year-old, singing as she stomps a sheet of pink bubble wrap spread on the cement floor.

"Where's your Daddy?" I ask and she stops long enough to point to the clean room.

"She doesn't have enough weight to easily burst them without jumping," observes Calvin, who slipped into the plant to run some tests. Like I said, it's quiet this holiday season. Not much going on. Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies web sites at www.meeco.com or www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com


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