January 20, 2016

My Friends -- Part 5: The BNA Gold Mine for Friends

The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), where I worked for 40 years, became an incredibly rich source of friendships. Unlike what happens in many organizations -- where job-based "friendships" end when the job ends -- many of these friendships are alive and well today, 20 years after my retirement.

I just reviewed my email list of BNA retirees and counted 17 people who remain close friends, not just “Facebook buddies.”

My experience wasn’t unusual; I sensed BNA was unlike other companies in this regard. While BNA was my only workplace experience, coworkers there have often reinforced my own opinion: that we shared a special place where employees felt like part of a family.

Here are several comments from BNA friends who left the company and ended up with top jobs at BNA's much larger competitors:

  • “I always knew that the only place I ever loved, really loved, was BNA. BNA with all its faults and silly culture. I loved working there.” --Hugh Yarrington
  • “BNA was unique in my opinion…. I really miss those days at the Bureau…. I enjoyed CCH, but it never felt like a real family.” --Becky Karnes
Employee ownership helped generate the special sense of family. Annual meetings were like family reunions, as BNA retirees from all over the country converged on Washington. Elections of employee shareholders to the board of directors often seemed like campaigns for high school president.

Here are some photos I dredged up of three of my closest friends at BNA. 

Bill Beltz. I'm probably giving him a length-of-service gift.

Bill Beltz was hired as an editor at BNA in 1956 (a year after I arrived there) and succeeded John Stewart as BNA's president in November, 1979. From the start, Bill became one of my best friends in the company. Our families vacationed together – separate beach houses -- in Rehoboth, Delaware.

Bill's friendly, casual exterior concealed tremendous determination, a basically shy personality, and a temper usually under control… though at times it could flare up impressively. He loved the theater, and under his stewardship, BNA became a major supporter of the Helen Hayes Awards, DC's equivalent of NYC’s Tony Awards. 

He loved BNA and its employees, especially those who were offbeat and quirky… and BNA had plenty of those. 

Lili Crane. We're getting ready for the drive back to DC after a BNA bridge 
players weekend at Mary Miner's cabin at Deep Creek in western Maryland.

Lili was hired shortly after Bill and worked on the same publication unit. After her husband died, Lili left BNA for a few years to spend more time with her daughters. When Lili returned to BNA, she headed up the research and special products unit, which answered subscriber inquiries.

A year or two after Lili retired, I was part of a BNA focus group organized to assess our customers’ opinions about our products and performance. We sat behind a glass wall that let us to see and hear the discussions in the room, without being seen by our clients.

On one occasion, a group of law librarians shared their opinions about how our services compared to those of our major competitors. One of those librarians said, “What we really need is more people like that woman at BNA…. What was her name?” Another librarian answered, “Lili. They should bring her back.” Then others joined the chorus: “Yes! Bring back Lili!”

Like Bill and me, Lili loved the performing arts, good restaurants, art galleries, and museums. Living alone, she had a motto: "Get out and do something every day." In what some might consider unusual for a single woman even today, Lili had no problem going anywhere – restaurants, movies -- by herself.

Nearly ten years older than me, Lili became a role model, showing us how to remain fully, actively engaged after retirement. Until the end, she kept finding fun things to do and ways to help others.

Brit Shaw. So often the case, we have drinks in hand.

For 15 years, I was the associate editor for BNA's human resources publications. And for most of that time, Brit was the product manager assigned by the sales department for those publications. Our business connection evolved into the most intense relationship of my life.

You either loved Brit or you hated him. I spent time in both camps. Two alcoholics. One a womanizer; the other a closeted homosexual. 'Nuff said. 

The BNA Family at Work and Play
BNA was a fun place to work. Probably the peak of BNA's family fun time came in the 1970s, an exciting time to be in DC. Many of us were often out on weekends marching or demonstrating for civil rights or protesting the Viet Nam War or demanding President Nixon's resignation when the Watergate scandal broke.

Even with a Republican in the White House and Democrats in control of Congress, major laws were enacted dealing with the environment, clean air, and occupational safety and health. This legislation generated new BNA publications. President Nixon issued executive orders concerning wage and price control and discrimination by government contractors… actions that boosted BNA sales. Back then, politicians had the peculiar idea that they were elected to improve the general welfare, not just to focus on raising money to get re-elected as is the case today.

So BNA kept growing and its employees worked hard… and played hard. Two-martini lunches were the norm in the '70s, at least in cities like Washington. BNA's executive editor ate lunch at the same restaurant every day. The waiters knew the drill: Menus appeared only after two rounds of drinks had been ordered. I attended one of these lunches with the editor of the Machinist Union's Journal as my guest. At one point he whispered to me, "Do they serve food here?"

Many of us looked for excuses to gather for drinks after work. Any mention of snow in the forecast generated phone calls to spouses: “Since it looks like there’ll be major rush hour slowdowns, we’re going to wait out the storm.” We often ended up driving home late at night on snowless roads.

There were many opportunities for socializing with coworkers in those days: bridge and poker games, theater nights, golf outings. Close friendships – and extra-marital affairs – were natural consequences.

BNA's president John Stewart was a regular at poker games and golf outings. But as a hard worker and dedicated leader, he made staffing decisions based solely on business considerations. It didn’t matter if you were a poker or golf buddy.

Like John, Lili Crane made decisions for business – not personal – reasons. One example: Lili, my wife Diana, and I were close friends for years. Diana applied for a job on Lili's staff. During the interview, Lili asked Diana the question she asked all applicants: “Why do you want this job?" Diana, ever honest, replied, "It's more money than I make now." Lili said "Wrong answer" and denied Diana the job.

But Bill, Brit, and I had some difficulties in this business vs. personal arena. Our close friendships occasionally clouded our business decisions. Assembling this post, I started brooding about some things I did – and didn’t do -- back then. But that was then. I reminded myself of one of my AA slogans: It's OK to look back. Just don't stare.

BNA's Family Therapist Par Excellence and a Treasured Friend
Most of my BNA career was spent in the editorial department. But for my last seven years there, I was the company's vice president for human resources.

I'd written about employee relations for years, but I had no personal training or experience in the field. Fortunately, Randy Brooks -- whose retirement as personnel director led to the creation of my job -- had put together an excellent staff of HR professionals who expertly handled the day-to-day operations.

Mark Feck. The guy I called to help me figure out what a VP for HR should do.
Mark was human resources vice president at Rohm & Haas (now Dow). We met at a conference of HR executives held every July at the YMCA Silver Bay Association on Lake George. Mark became my mentor.

At the time I moved into the HR job at BNA, Mark was beginning a transition from Rohm & Haas to working as an outside consultant. I knew that Mark had created a highly regarded leadership development program in collaboration with Karol Wasylyshyn, a Philadelphia psychologist and Silver Bay friend. 

I was able to bring both of them to BNA as consultants. Our collaboration made my final years at BNA the most rewarding of my career... and the most fun.

Paul Wojcik -- Bill Beltz’s successor as BNA president -- told me that he considered bringing Mark to our company my most important achievement at BNA.

Mark and Karol became fascinated by BNA and its idiosyncrasies. Over and over, as Mark and I talked about the company, we’d say "What A Place!" The oft-repeated phrase eventually earned its own abbreviation, and we’d just say “WAP”!

Unfortunately Mark died of a heart attack in 1999. Karol is now considered a leader in the field of executive development and coaching. Her latest book, Destined to Lead, is getting rave reviews.

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Summing up my thoughts on BNA and friendships: WAP!

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