October 13, 2011

Connecting the Dots That Led to My 40-Year Career at BNA, the Nation's Oldest 100% Employee-Owned Company... But No More

In my October 7 post (see below), I reviewed the three stories Steve Jobs told in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. First, he “connected the dots” that led him to his work at Apple. “You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life,” he said.

While I hesitate to compare myself in any way with such a visionary pioneer, I've had similar thoughts about my own unplanned path toward a career that was damn near perfect for me. I’ve always just called it serendipity. Here’s how I connect my own dots:

  • I was born in May 1929, five months before the stock market crashed. In the Great Depression that followed, my dad worked a series of jobs that took his young family from Hudson, NY (my birthplace) to New York City, Philadelphia, and finally to Ithaca, where he secured employment as a draftsman and tool designer, eventually ending up with Morse Chain Company where he remained until he retired.
  • Our family of five – mom, dad, and three kids – never went hungry, but there were many things we could not afford, like a car. We had only two vacations during my years in Ithaca: a 1939 trip to New York City for World's Fair and a visit to my grandfather's house in Patterson, NJ.
  • In high school, I worked as a mailroom clerk after school and on Saturday mornings; the 5¬-1/2-day workweek was standard in those days. I graduated near the top of my high school class, but I couldn’t afford the $600 tuition  to attend Cornell – right there in my home town, Ithaca – as a “day student.” So I worked for a year after high school and saved enough to enter Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences the following year.
  • After three semesters, I ran out of money. But I was lucky; Four Cornell-affiliated schools were land-grant, state-funded institutions that had no tuition, only fees (about $50 per semester). The choices included veterinary medicine, agriculture, home economics, and industrial / labor relations (ILR). Unable to imagine a future as a vet, farmer, or homemaker, I chose the labor relations school and – quite by luck – embarked on a lifelong career in that field. I ended up graduating with the equivalent of a Cornell liberal arts degree with a major in labor relations. And here’s another unexpected plus: I made many friends at this smaller college, after feeling lost and lonely as a day student at the huge liberal arts college. I still count some of those classmates as friends today.
  • Clueless about my future after graduation, I entered Cornell Law School. I covered the heftier tuition by working in both the ILR and law school libraries. I also received a modest scholarship
  • .In my third and last year at law school, I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do after graduation. I’d been doing well – managing editor of the law review and near the top of my class – but the prospect of practicing law just didn’t feel right. Instead, I applied for teaching assistant jobs at law schools and received a tentative acceptance from the Washington University Law School in Seattle.
  • Enter serendipity, disguised as a crushing humiliation: In March, 1955, with only a few months before graduating with honors, I was kicked out for conduct during an alcoholic blackout. Booze, my repressed sexuality, the men’s dormitory… it was just a horrible mess. Something similar had occurred the year before, and I’d been placed on probation and required to see the university shrink. So, two strikes and I was OUT.
  • Then came another flash of serendipity.  Gormly Miller, my mentor, boss and head librarian at the ILR School, called his friend John Stewart, then executive editor at the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) in Washington, DC. Gormly told John he thought I’d be an excellent fit at BNA, even though I'd been kicked out of law school. John agreed to interview me. A month after the Cornell disaster, I was hired at BNA and began a happy, rewarding 40-year career there.
I started at BNA writing brief summaries of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions and court cases involving labor relations – just the sort of work that makes law students roll their eyes. I retired 40 years later as BNA's vice president for human resources and vice chairman of the board of directors.

BNA is a unique institution. It was the nation's oldest, 100% employee-owned company until Bloomberg bought it last month. Its people and culture were also unique – a cause for occasional frustration and regular fun.

During my last few years, I worked closely with a management consultant who became fascinated by BNA's peculiarities. Over and over, as we 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!”

My F-Words Farewell to BNA

Bill Beltz, BNA's then CEO and my long-time dear friend, introduced me at my BNA farewell party.  Bill was  always a bit uneasy about what I might say and I saw a familiar look of concern cross his face when I started by saying that F-words kept coming to mind when I reflected on my BNA career.  But he relaxed when he heard that these were my 'F-words:

Family. In my case, two families: my family at home and my BNA family. I met the woman who would become my wife at BNA, where she was a writer/editor (and better than I ever was). She left BNA for a time when our son and daughter were born but later returned full-time to the job she loved. My daughter also spent 10 years working as a BNA editor.

The element of employee ownership – and the unusual shared quirkiness – created uncommonly strong family-like connections at BNA. Many of my contemporaries, now retired from other businesses, have discovered that most of their workplace friendships were actually just acquaintances that faded and lapsed with retirement.. Sixteen years after I left BNA, many of my former co-workers  remain good friends.

Fulfilling Work. Another biggie.  I found work that was challenging and interesting. I started in BNA’s labor division, and in time, I was the associate editor responsible for that division.  Looking back on my years in the editorial department, I decided that the most personally satisfying job was when I was managing editor of a publication. Interestingly, when I checked with BNA's two most recent CEO's - Paul Wojcik and Bill Beltz -- they had the same choice for most satisfying job.  There's something about a job where at the end of the week you have produced  something tangible and hopefully admirable.

After 15 years as associate editor of BNA's numerous human resource publications, I knew I needed a change. When our executive editor asked us to list our goals for the coming year, he was surprised to read my first goal: find a new challenge. Once again, serendipity smiled. At that time, BNA's human resource management functions were split among a director of personnel (who handled the traditional personnel duties) and an assistant to BNA's president (who managed organizational development) and another assistant who handled labor relations. When each of those managers announced their retirements, I convinced BNA president Bill Beltz to create the new position – vice president for human resources – and give it to me. Bill, who came to BNA as a novice editor a year after me, found it hard to believe I would abandon the many editorial satisfactions we both had enjoyed.

The VP/HR job turned out to be the ideal place for me to spend my final years at BNA. I inherited an excellent staff from my predecessors, and I had the pleasure of working with two excellent outside consultants – Mark Feck and Karol Wasylyshyn – on executive and organization development issues. I found that working on HR issues was harder than writing about them. It was just the challenge I needed to enrich my last working years.

Financial Security. While at BNA, I maintained a payroll deduction to purchase  BNA stock on a regular basis, as did many of my colleagues. If we talked to financial advisers, they all would raise red flags, cautioning, “Don’t put it all in BNA. You must diversify!”

The BNA stock price and dividend amount were set by the board of directors every six months, and employees were kept well-informed. Through the 40 years I worked at BNA (1955-1995), the stock price never went down. Only twice did it remain the same. Amazing as it seems now, the average annual return (dividends and appreciation) was close to 20%. That return rate decreased in the more turbulent times of the past 15 years, but it still outperformed most other equities.

The last price set by BNA’s board was $16.50 a share. Bloomberg's offer, which BNA shareholders accepted a few weeks ago, was $39.50. Ka-CHING! So much for those financial advisers who told us we were crazy to put all our eggs in that one BNA basket.

Actually, I did end up with a diversified portfolio, since I opted for a lump-sum retirement payout, not the usual monthly pension. Serendipity smiled on me again, as all that money – now invested in an IRA – rode the upward surge in the market during the late 1990s.

Fun, Fun, Fun. I've mentioned the quirkiness of BNA's culture and people. Particularly in those first decades – the 50s, 60s and 70s – BNA was fun partly because the business world was easier then. During that time, Congress passed major new laws every year or two  If a new law seemed to have the potential for a BNA publication, the editorial and sales groups would hold a big meeting to decide: Should our publication on the new law be a looseleaf reference service or a notification service? Life was much simpler in those days.

BNA managed to survive – even thrive – while many of us were enjoying one- or two-martini lunches. As a recovering alcoholic whose addiction caused many problems, I probably shouldn't say this, but … much of the alcohol-fueled partying at BNA was just plain fun. Any mention of snow in the evening weather forecast brought a flurry of phone calls to spouses with the same message:  I'm going to wait out the storm-related rush hour messiness and will be late getting home. Then we'd head for our favorite bar. We managed to find lots of other excuses to party.

One of my fond memories is being out with my drinking buddies a year or two after I'd quit drinking and hear one of them say: "You know what? You're as much fun sober as you used to be drunk."

BNA management tolerated – even encouraged – an irreverent humor that poked fun (mostly good-natured) at everyone and everything.

In recent years, BNA old-timers often complain that the company has changed and isn't fun like before. My reply is always the same: BNA hasn’t changed. The business world is just must tougher these days.

I'll end with an example of BNA's irreverent humor. When I retired from BNA's board of directors, I got the usual certificate of thanks,  but then I got an additional certificate which I enjoyed much more. Here it is.

 (Background: After I got sober, I helped several co-workers get into alcoholism treatment centers. After I officially retired, I stayed on at BNA for a year, during which time I began writing a book (never completed, to my family's great relief, I suspect) about sexuality and alcoholism. And BNA had recently begun an "Open Book" program to provide its employee owners with financial and business information.)


    Rlstrain said...

    Thanks, John. As a former employee, observer, and participant in many of the activities you recount, I greatly enjoyed the memories. Strange to think of BNA being bought by Bloomberg, but everything changes with time. Best to you. Bob

    Linda F. said...

    What a great story! I think you SHOULD write that "behind-the-scenes" about BNA pre-Bloomberg:)

    NancySW said...

    What a hoot! LOVED it!

    Stan Degler said...

    Employee ownership attracted me to BNA in the first place and made possible for me to achieve the wealth I now enjoy. I came from a blue-collar family who left me nothing but the debt they owed me. Any success I enjoy now I owe to Pennsylvania State University and BNA's employee ownership ownership.  employeeownership. 

    Stan Degler said...

    ownership. I regret that present employees will not have that opportunity.--Stan Degler

    Bpercytyree said...

    John: Nice postings about BNA. Years before I joined BNA, I was acquainted with a Mormon lawyer named Wilkinson (family firm I think Hugh Y. worked for at one point) and he recommended BNA and Dean Dinwoody to me, but knowing he was a laywer and BNA was a legal publisher I was skeptical and regrettably enough did not act as early as I might have. Maybe I was "supposed" to go there, because I received another such nudge years later from Bruce Hathaway, who said not being a lawyer didn't mater and urged me to apply for an opening in Stan Degler's department during a time when I was already working at the "parent" U.S.News practically next door. I got the interview, but figured I had bombed. Stan seemed reserved, and I interpreted this to mean "no," and so was very pleasantly surprised to receive his subsequent call and job offer. That was 1971. It was to be perhaps my single most fortuitous and formative career move. I grew and progressed enormously under Stan's guidance and direction and in 1973, under his oversight, started and was first managing editor of the former Energy Users report. I later left BNA to pursue postgraduate studies, but returned after a few years, to DER/DT. The opportunities for young people there were in my experience without parallel, particularly in the 1970s. While I am no longer an interested party, and I am happy for those of you who will benefit from the Bloomberg deal, I don't know whether I could have brought myself to vote for it, even with the board's approval. But then I have been away a very long time, and the realities of the market place have changed enormously.
    All the best to all of you. Ben

    John said...

    Good hearing from you, Ben.  I'm hoping teaming up with Bloomberg will open up opportunities for today's BNA'ers. 

    John said...

    I'd probably get sued if I recounted some of the incidents from the good old days. Such as the story about the affair a managing editor was having with a co-worker and the threats of her husband when he found out that prompted BNA males to consider wearing buttons "Saying I'm Not XXX [name of the m.e.]"