Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Connected Success

Howard Schultz has been on a media sprint. Celebrating the 40th anniversary today, March 30, of his company, Starbucks, Schultz in the last few days has been interviewed on 60 Minutes by Katie Couric, on NPR by Leonard Lopate, and even had a write-up in The Costco Connection, that retailer’s lifestyle magazine for its members. Aside from the anniversary to celebrate, there’s the performance and stock price rebound of the last two years, ever since he returned as CEO of the Seattle-based company. How better to spout his business philosophy and executive skills than to write a book about it, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul.

That’s where my connection comes in. I’m not a coffee drinker, so my visits to Starbucks have been mostly to accompany java addicts on their habitual rounds. My connection goes deeper than a grande cup of Sumatra beans. Schultz’s co-author of Onward is Joanne Gordon. Joanne worked for me in 1998 fresh out of Northwestern University’s master’s program at the Medill School of Journalism.

Now, I can hardly take lots of credit for her success during her diverse writing career, including five other books. Joanne’s tenure at Chain Store Age lasted about a year, until she was able to secure what she really wanted, a position on Forbes. Still, there’s something to be said about vicariously enjoying the success of one’s former staffers, if for no other reason than a validation of your own keen eye for talent.

Over the years I prided myself in selecting not just good writers and salespeople, but more importantly, women and men who appreciated the value of teamwork over ego and who, when the opportunity arose, could lead their own staffs. I trained some 20 staff members to assume executive positions in the editorial and publishing sides of the business within my former company and even among our competitors. For the record, I never disparaged or resented any of the competitors I trained. I’d explain to any editorial source or advertising account that personally I always preferred dealing with originals, not carbon copies.

I’m proud my alumni include the deputy managing editor of Fortune, the former managing editor/executive editor of Crain’s New York Business, a former columnist for Seventeen magazine, the former publisher of Advertising Age, and editors or publishers of several retail industry publications.

I also take some pride in being part of a group of New Haven journalists of the early 1970s to make it big in the Big Apple. I followed Dan Collins as a beat reporter in Shelton, Conn., for The New Haven Register. Dan is a senior producer for Dan’s wife, Gail Collins, is a columnist for The New York Times. Back in our New Haven days, Gail ran her own news service covering state politics. Dan and Gail kept two pet guinea pigs named for the owner of The Register and his son, Lionel and Stewart (Jackson). While I worked on the afternoon paper, Trish Hall worked on The Journal-Courier, the morning paper. Trish is now Op-Ed editor for The New York Times.

It’s fulfilling, and somewhat humbling, to share these connections. And then there are the unusual associations with past staffers.

A few years ago while watching the news about a gas explosion at a house in New Jersey, I bolted up straight in my seat when the reporter named the homeowner. Jeff MacCallum had worked for me as an editor 10 years earlier. A former military man, Jeff and his bride walked down the aisle under crossed swords.

Remember the Dustin Hoffman movie Hero? Flanked by Dan and Ellie in a movie theater, I nearly jumped out of my seat when I spotted one of my Chicago salesmen at the focal point of the crowd scene where they are searching for the Cinderfella hero of the plane crash rescue to match the shoe he left behind. Larry Rivkin had answered a casting call for extras. Not only was Larry in the scene, but the camera actually zoomed in on him.

Cameras have repeatedly zoomed in on another ex-staffer, Brad Altman, from Los Angeles. And why not. Brad and actor George Takei were the first gay couple to receive a marriage license in the City of West Hollywood. They were married in 2008. For those not familiar with George Takei, he played Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series.

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