Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Return to Appleton

It’s now been over a month since my dad’s passing, in some ways it’s seems like a long time and in other ways the past month has literally blown by in a blink. My work tempo over the past few weeks has been a bit bewildering, having travelled coast to coast three times with customer meetings in New Orleans, Orlando, Minneapolis, and Atlanta thrown in the midst for good luck. What a month!

Since losing my dad, I have been drawn to make two pilgrimages of sorts, one to my mom’s grave back in Western Pennsylvania and one to my friend Bruce’s grave in Appleton Wisconsin. I don’t know if it’s an urge or desire to reconnect with my memories of those two specific individuals who meant (and mean) a lot to me, or in some way to immerse myself for a few brief moments in reflective physical environments.

Earlier this month I found my way to Appleton, renting a car in that familiar little airport, and heading out to visit familiar sights and old friends. I had a few hours open , so instead of heading straight to the cemetery, I turned south to pay a visit at a charming little cheese factory in Zitau Wisconsin. On one of my last visits before Bruce passed, he wanted to take a drive to see some old sights and to go out to his lake house to pay one last visit. With his advancing stages of ALS, Bruce was well past driving at that time so I loaded him into my car and headed west. Instead of heading straight to the lake house, he directed me to take a rural route which lead us to the Union Star Cheese Cooperative in Zitau. Here I was just a few weeks ago, now over four years since Bruce’s passing, pulling up to that same little cheese factory out in the chilly Wisconsin countryside.

While I was swimming in memories, the woman working behind the counter was diligently packing bags of freshly made cheese curds, a local favorite. With tears in my eyes, I picked up a bag of curds and added a block or two of their aged cheddar, Bruce’s favorite. Here I was having a visceral nostalgic experience and the woman behind the counter, while helpful, had things to do, bags to pack, and a large block of Colby-jack cheese on the counter that needed cutting and wrapping. I quickly paid for my cheese and headed out, back to find my way back to the cemetery in Appleton.

The leaves were turning colors brightly and the trees at the cemetery were beautiful, even on a cool drizzly afternoon. I had picked up some flowers and after cleaning up Bruce’s headstone, I rested the flowers on top and said a prayer. I didn’t want to leave so I started walking around the cemetery which sits on a bluff above the Fox River. Headstones of young children recently passed, of soldiers who fought in our civil war buried in the later 1800’s, of grandparents, and of teenagers all side by side. While I came that day to “visit” Bruce’s grave, I was struck by the expanse of human history surrounding me in that beautiful cemetery.

Later that afternoon I visited with dear old friends Steve and Nina, and the next day enjoyed a great breakfast with two other dear friends Donna and Marilyn who worked with Bruce and I at Kimberly Clark in the late 1980’s. Each conversation was precious, thinking back on times past but more importantly catching up on life today; the latest updates on kids and grandkids, challenges at work and at church, plans for the upcoming holidays and future vacations, etc.

I had come back to Appleton to take a moment of reflection as I mourn the passing of my father, and while I certainly had a number of “reflective moments”, I left Wisconsin thinking about my life and the busy road ahead. I was so anxious to get home and see Jennie, Bryson and Marie and get caught up on the latest developments with homework, board meetings, play rehearsals, chorus concerts, etc. Just like the lady at the cheese factory, there were things to do, errands to be run, happiness and sadness to experience, tears and laughter to enjoy/ endure, in other terms there was life to be lived!

My continuing “takeway” as I reflect on all those who have passed before us, (those dear to me and a multitude unknown) is that life is precious and fragile and that life is to be lived NOW, not in some future, post-graduation/post-marriage/post-children/post-debt/post-retirement fantasy but NOW, today, this week, not someday but NOW!

Friday, November 8, 2013

The "Gravity" of Blockbuster

As an addendum to my recent essay “The Gravity of Success,” this week’s headlines regarding Blockbuster warrants a quick note. It was reported this week that as of January the last of Blockbuster’s stores, along with their DVD mail service, will close. After declaring bankruptcy in 2011, the enterprise once known for offering families all across North America a “Blockbuster Night” will shutter its last remaining doors. The amazing thing about this story is not the ultimate success of on-line vs. traditional retail models (though this is a great example of that dynamic,) but the speed of this decline and my personal experience with it that began at a dinner in Dallas in May of 2002.

Now more than eleven years ago, I was in a role that oversaw the Blockbuster relationship for The Coca-Cola Company. We had a team of bright and talented sales and marketing executives working on that business and we looked upon it as a very strategic commercial and marketing relationship. I remember quite clearly being in Dallas for meetings at Blockbuster’s Headquarters in late May of 2002, working on key partnership marketing plans and it was in that bar, now more than eleven years ago, that I witnessed a live version of the concept “The Gravity of Success.”

Quite coincidentally earlier that day, in late May of 2002, Netflix had announced their plans to go public. At that time, Netflix was just a few years old, primarily a mail order DVD rental company, which had never generated a profit. The “dot-com” bubble had recently burst, and many on-line startups were failing. I remember everyone gathering at the bar and the Blockbuster team toasting and laughing about the breaking news regarding Netflix. One of their team laughed that with over 9000 stores , spanning towns large and small across North America and across numerous other countries, who would want to wait for a DVD to come by “snail mail” when you could stop by at your local store and enjoy a “Blockbuster Night.”

In hindsight we all laughed and toasted what seemed to be the folly of that day. But now, just eleven years later, Blockbuster will close the last of their 9000 stores, and Netflix is soaring and innovating to new heights. It’s amazing in hindsight to see how wrong we all were, and how influenced we were by the historic drivers of success at that moment. In 2002, those 9000+ stores seemed like a huge barrier of entry for others, and that the physical experience of stopping by at your local Blockbuster was a convenient and entertaining part of your weekly routine. For Coke, all of those stores, and all of those coolers, and all of those shoppers were pure gold, both commercially and as a marketing resource. None of us that night took a second to think about the “virtual currency” that Netflix or other on-line media sources would someday dominate. We all missed it that night; we were all caught in “The Gravity of Blockbuster.”

I share this story not only to connect to this week’s headlines, but to reinforce that we all need to learn from history, and sometimes form our own history! The memory of that night in Dallas makes me humble and attentive as I reflect on my current work world and our current levels of success. The memory makes me want to be more critical of our current business drivers, and it is pushing me to try to “look over the horizon” at the possible drivers of our current success, our “9000 stores” that may be our Achilles heel in the years ahead. Equally I am attentive to watch the competitive landscape more attentively. Eleven years ago Blockbuster wrongly dismissed Netflix as a competitive threat. Wrongly dismissed to their detriment and demise! What new innovative small businesses and brands am I being too casual and complacent about? Reflect on your own realities as you read this essay and be mindful and active about lessons you can learn from “The Gravity of Blockbuster.”