Learn the Rules Before You Join the Game
I was working at Archer Aluminum when it had a misstep in 1965. Archer had experienced growing pains, partly from working in the shadow of its parent company. While it was heir to the tobacco culture and people transferred back-and-forth with the parent, policy differences were hard to reconcile at times.
This led to an incident that provided a lesson on managing change and introduced us to an executive who made a life-long impression.
Archer was researching new products, diversifying in aluminum and packaging. With this potential growth, Archer added more people than was justified, but reducing headcount and firing people was not in RJR’s comfort zone, and they felt a new leader from outside would be more adept at such a role.
RJR hired a new Archer CEO, a successful thirty-nine-year-old executive from a competitor. I suspect he did not get enough ground rules on what he could do. So, being a hard charger, he decided that to get everyone’s attention he would fire some people. On a Friday afternoon, foremen told two workers that they were likely to be terminated on Monday, probably a test case for more that would follow. One RJR-trained manufacturing supervisor warned that this heavy-handed way was not how RJR did things. But the two workers got the termination notices anyway.
As I heard the story, their first stop after leaving the plant that day was the personnel department at Reynolds Tobacco downtown, where they told their story. Monday morning, the Archer CEO did not come to work and was never heard from again.
I’ve Always Lived on Country Club Road
I recall two encounters with a couple who personified the “old guard” in Winston-Salem. In 1965 I had recently joined RJR. I had a conversation with the wife of a longtime RJR manager. Making polite conversation, I asked where they lived. She said, “We live on Country Club Road. I have always lived on Country Club Road. Why would anybody live anywhere but on Country Club Road?“ Why indeed? This was a prestigious street conveniently located to Forsyth Country Club where many Reynolds management belonged.
Thirty-five years later, I chanced to meet the couple at a Winston-Salem restaurant. I had moved ninety miles south to Charlotte. They remarked that they hadn’t seen me in some time. When I told them that I lived in Charlotte, he said, “Well you get done with whatever you’re doing down there and get on back up here where you belong.“ He could not imagine that I would forsake our wonderful hometown for a “metropolis” like Charlotte with no small-town charm – far from Country Club Road.
I learned in 2015 that this lady, now widowed, was true to her word. She was ninety-four years old and still lived on Country Club Road and regularly played bridge at her club. She had lived a comfortable life, somewhat insulated from the rest of the world, because of the largess that Reynolds had bestowed on her family.