Small Business

My Dysfunctional Extended Family


By Lisa Bergson With his plain face and earnest, caring manner, there is something very likable about Peter Tan. At MEECO, everyone I've spoken to about our new Asian Regional Sales Manager has a positive opinion. But that's not Peter's impression. He looks a bit woeful as we sip herbal tea at Taiwan's Chiang Kai Shek Airport. "I think maybe I am just being emotional," he muses. "But I feel like people at MEECO don't want me or care about me."

As good as we are at keeping and motivating folks in Warrington, Pa., our track record on retaining remote employees has been abysmal. This was not always so, however. In my father's day, the farther you were from headquarters, the more likely you were to survive his tyrannical and often capricious rule.

The story goes that he fired our Houston-based rep, his sole salesman, more than once, and the fellow just kept right on working. Meanwhile, my father ran through secretaries and top-tier employees by the dozen. No managers remained by the time I joined MEECO in 1983.

OIL AND WATER. Even our man in Houston -- let's just call him "Tex" -- did not last under my tenure. A huge man who drove an enormous SUV, he showed me around the oil patch the first time I went down in my new capacity. "I sold all round here," he boasted, waving a big hand with fingers like dried Italian sausages. I saw fields of "horsehead" pumpjacks that reminded me of giant praying mantises, endlessly bowing under the hot Texas sun. I did not see new orders.

"What about now?" I asked.

Tex looked puzzled. Apparently, it had never occurred to him that there is no annuity in this business. Without a steady stream of new business, there's no cash flow and no payroll. It's tough because our analytical instruments really do work very well and last for decades, requiring few replacements. Only by continuing to innovate have we been able to convince our customers to buy new. But, even after bringing out updated models, built to Tex's very own specifications, his performance remained lackluster.

Thinking back, though, what really soured our relationship was his inability to adjust to the frankly feminist culture I fostered. Although Bill encouraged me to take over after my father grew ill, I don't think it occurred to him that I would become his boss. He had a habit of crushing soda cans and scratching below his belt buckle every time I took the lead in business meetings.

CODE OF THE COWBOY. Worse, I hired a highly capable regional service person to work with him. "I've got bad news about her," he told me over the phone one day. "I suspicion that she's been expecting." The bigger the poor woman grew, the more hostile Bill became. When I allowed her to bring the baby to work in her one-woman shop, that was it for him. With a generous severance to ease the way, Bill went on to peddle the products of other, more simpatico outfits.

I'll admit that, like most small businesses, ours has a distinct environment and values. We're a tight-knit, almost fiercely loyal team, and it's hard for outsiders to fit in. We don't do a lot to help them either. "No one responds to my e-mails," Peter complains.

Guilty, I look down at my exotic herbal blend. How much trouble would it be for me to write: "Peter: Thank you, I'm forwarding your e-mail to Calvin, who's best equipped to answer," and cc'ing Calvin for good measure? It's just good manners. I operate by a kind of shorthand within MEECO, transferring or copying e-mails to the appropriate parties with little to no comment. For outsiders and, even more so, for foreigners, it's clearly not enough.

How much is enough? I talk it over with our executive vice-president for sales and marketing, Tom Mallon, who manages Peter. "I understand how isolated they feel," he says of remote employees. "With Europe it's easier to hold meetings real-time. With Asia, I call at 6:00 a.m. on my way to the gym or at 9:00 p.m. from home." At least he's trying.

MAKING ACCOMMODATIONS. Still, we need to do more to care for our extended family. At least once a quarter, we'll fly Peter to the plant and also arrange for one or more of the HQ staff to visit with him. Further, instead of working from home, he's moved in with the independent sales-rep outfit that handles our line in Singapore. I hope it will help for him to work among others, and the arrangement certainly gives him great proximity to our rep.

As he walks me toward the guards checking passports prior to boarding, I offer a couple more suggestions. "Ask Marci to set up a voicemail box for you at the plant so it's easier to leave messages. On e-mail and voicemail, do what I do and copy everyone who you think needs to know about something. Don't expect someone at the plant to do it."

I go to shake hands, and he kisses my cheek, a practice I introduced him to. "I'm not used to that, but I think I could get used to it," Peter said the first time I greeted him Euro-style. I think he's going to fit in just fine. 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 and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com


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