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    Published on: September 8, 2010

    by Michael Sansolo

    All things considered, there are few places to get better management lessons than a simple field in southern Pennsylvania. So with the nation’s students heading back to school, it seemed an apt time to visit Gettysburg and revisit some of the incredible lessons offered from the linchpin battle of the Civil War and the ghosts of those who fought and died there.

    Gettysburg is an unusual memorial, where travelers today can ride around the entire perimeter of the battlefield and learn about the past. What captures your eyes more than the endless memorials to regiments and states, is the size of the battle field. At once it looks both small and large, giving a sense of just how close both armies were, but also how vast the number of men was too. It’s impossible to avoid letting the history - and the lessons - surround you.

    For instance, there is a spot near Seminary Ridge where Confederate General Robert E. Lee rode out solemnly one afternoon to view his men returning from the failed assault known as Pickett’s Charge. As the men returned, Lee had two issues in mind: first, his concern that the Union forces would counter-attack his badly battered troops, and second, that he needed to admit that the ill-fated assault was his own fault.

    Think about that second point. Lee erred and admitted it directly to his men, an occurrence that would shock us today in any field. But as the historical information scattered around Gettysburg points out that Lee owed that apology. He launched the assault ill-advisedly by overestimating the strength of his forces and underestimating the opposing army. Once again, a classic business mistake of not facing the facts.

    While virtually all of Gettysburg is a lesson in management, possibly the greatest lessons come from the small rocky hilltop know as Little Round Top. If Gettysburg was the critical battle of the war, Little Round Top was the pivotal point in that battle. The small hill offered the Union forces a commanding position and one that, had they lost it, would have doomed their army.

    Despite its importance, the Union generals never really gave the hill the support it needed. The stories are endless about how individual Union officers barely rallied sufficient troops to repel attack after attack on the hill. It’s a lesson on remembering to focus on what’s most important and to ensure that sufficient resources are always applied to your most important assets.

    Yet, in many ways, the Union was saved by some fortunate choices in personnel, another great parallel to business. First, some of the key Union officers included men who understood terrain (the man who would later design the Brooklyn Bridge was among them) and they adroitly managed their troops to maximum advantage.

    Second, down a small wooded path are signs that quietly herald the exploits of the 20th Maine regiment commanded by Col. Joshua Chamberlain. If Little Round Top was the key to the battle, the flank guarded by the 20th Maine was the key to Little Round Top. It was a position that the Confederates should have taken thanks to superior numbers and arms that day, but a creative counter-attack dreamed up by Chamberlain turned the battle and kept the strategic hill in Union hands.

    I’ve written about Chamberlain before and probably will again because his lesson may be one of the best for any executive or manager to consider. The unheralded officer who with creativity and courage to change history by understanding that defeat was not an option and that the standard rules weren’t going to work.

    It reminds you that there is always much to learn from history and especially from the ghosts at a place like Gettysburg.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    Little things count.

    That’s what occurred to me the other day when I read a story about Pommery, the French champagne manufacturer, has “slimmed” the shape of its bottles to make it ever so slightly lighter.

    To the naked eye, apparently, the difference is hardly noticeable. But the New York Times notes that the retooling “uses 65 fewer grams (2.3 ounces) of glass,” which reflects a strategy that aims to cut the industry’s carbon footprint cut 25 percent by 2020, and 75 percent by 2050. At the same time, using less glass means spending less money, which is a good thing since champagne sales are down over the past few years...and the savings will get greater if other manufacturers adopt the new bottle shape.

    But again, you hold the bottle and look at it, and you’d hardly notice the difference.

    But little things count. And most certainly add up.

    It’s worth thinking about next time any of us consider just letting something go because it really doesn’t matter.

    Everything matters. Especially in a competitive environment where every advantage can be the difference between being first and being irrelevant.

    I’ll drink to that,.

    And that’s my Wednesday Eye-Opener.

    - Kevin Coupe
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    The October Consumer Reports offers a comparison of national brand and store brand products, concluding that “in 21 head-to-head taste match-ups, national brands won seven times, the store brand came out on top in three instances, and the remainder resulted in ties.” (A tie, the magazine says, “doesn't mean the taste was identical. Two products may be equally fresh and flavorful, with ingredients of similar quality, but taste dissimilar because the recipe or seasonings differ.”)

    “The study reaffirms that store brands are worth a try,” Tod Marks, senior projects editor for Consumer Reports, says in explaining the study. “For a family that spends $100 a week on groceries, the savings could add up to more than $1,500 a year.” Nutritionally, most of the products seems to be about the same, according to Consumer Reports, no matter whether they are national or private brands.

    According to the magazine, the “price study evaluated five supermarket chains and compared store- and name-brand prices for 30 everyday items at five chains, collecting a total of 283 price quotes (and) found the average savings with store brands was 30 percent, but shoppers saved as much as 52 percent on some items.”

    Consumer Reports notes, however, that while national brands are perceived as being more expensive than private brands, that difference may be narrowing as companies lower costs and prices in response to the recession.
    KC's View:
    There’s no question that this recession has given private brands a bump, but in my mind it remains to be seen whether this advance will be maintained in prosperity. More than anything, it will have to do with quality and innovation levels being maintained on own-label items ... offering a differential advantage, not just an alternative.

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    The Los Angeles Business Journal reports that the LA City Council seems to be on the verge of making permanent strict limitations on the building of new fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles. The virtual moratorium was originally put into place two years ago because of concerns about high obesity rates in the financially challenged neighborhood; it was originally supposed to expire later this month, but the Council is moving in the direction of making it permanent.

    According to the story, “The moratorium has served as an effective ban on new restaurants, as its severe restrictions have blocked construction of any new stand-alone restaurants in South Los Angeles since its adoption. While fast-food outlets are technically allowed to open in certain cases, city officials also want to add another hurdle – distance requirements of either a quarter-mile or even a mile between them. The ban faces renewed opposition from major fast-food chains that want to expand in the area. They say market forces should determine whether franchise outlets should be built in the area, not government mandates.”
    KC's View:
    And yet, if you read the story about New York’s experience that follows, there is at least some evidence that, to paraphrase Woody Allen, “the stomach wants what the stomach wants.”

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    The New York Times reports that a new study by New York City health officials reveals that 40 percent of the city’s schoolchildren were overweight or obese during the 2008-2009 school year, exactly the same as the year before, despite numerous efforts by the Bloomberg administration to improve the health of residents through a variety of initiatives, such as requiring the posting of calorie counts and banning trans fats.

    In fact, the NYC rate is higher than the national rate, which comes in at about 35.5 percent.

    The study also showed that wealth seemed to equal wealth, with some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods having the highest obesity rates.

    The Times reports that the Bloomberg administration is doubling down on its efforts, and plans to continue developing programs that will encourage healthier eating by the city’s children.
    KC's View:
    I repeat my caution from the LA story, above. Sometimes all the best intentions don’t solve the problem.

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    The New York Times reports on how, for two years, “Amazon has been trying to get manufacturers to adopt ‘frustration-free packaging’ that gets rid of plastic cases and air-bubble wrap — major irritants for consumers and one of Amazon’s biggest sources of customer complaints. But the frustration persists. Only about 600 of the millions of products Amazon sells come in frustration-free versions.”

    Part of the problem is that Amazon is fighting a lonely battle; the story notes that other major online retailers such as Walmart and Target have not adopted the alternative packaging even when suppliers have made it available.

    Now, the Times writes, “Amazon, still determined to get more manufacturers to sign up, is making the case by taking the angry customer feedback on old-school packages directly to the product makers. Compared to the traditional versions of the products, frustration-free products have earned on average a 73 percent reduction in negative feedback on the Amazon site.”
    KC's View:
    I’ve gotten the frustration-free packaging on products that I’ve ordered from Amazon, and I have to say that it is an extraordinary advantage. Who among us has not wrestled with a plastic case, or gone after it with a knife or scissor halfway convinced that we’ll lose a finger before opening the damned item?

    Now, according to the Times story, “environmental experts attribute the slow response to the intransigence of big manufacturers, the complexity in having different packages for physical retail and electronic retail and a lack of coordination among the major e-commerce companies.”

    I put this in the same category as reusable shopping bags. It may take time to get a majority of people on board, but eventually it’ll happen. It simply makes too much sense for people and companies to resist forever.

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    The New York Times reports that Portuguese cork manufacturers are banding together to “encourage wineries to use cork stoppers rather than aluminum twist-off caps or stoppers made of plastic and other synthetic materials ... The campaign promotes cork by playing up what are proclaimed as its significant advantages over alternatives on environmental and sustainability grounds. That separates it from other efforts that have sold the use of cork for bottles on the issue of taste.”
    KC's View:
    As I’ve said here before, the romance associated with the popping of a cork is enough for me ... but if they can make an environmental argument in addition, that works for me.

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    Save Mart Supermarkets Chairman and CEO Bob Piccinini reportedly has announced to senior management a complete corporate and support organization restructure. Frank Capps has been promoted to the newly-created position of Executive VP and Chief Sales Officer, reporting to Steve Junquiero, President and COO. Frank Capps will oversee Marketing, Merchandising, and Operations. Mike Silveira (Executive VP and Chief Administrative Officer), Dan Miller (Vice President of SMART Transport), Ray Agah (Vice President of Engineering and Construction), and John Davis (Executive Director of Distribution) will also report to Steve Junqueiro who reports to Bob Piccinini.

    In addition to the organization restructure, 36 positions – ranging from vice presidents to clerks and affecting all corporate and support departments – reportedly have been eliminated.

    Save Mart said that the moves reflect its “continued efforts to strengthen its position in the marketplace and enhance operational efficiency for future growth.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    Convenience chain Casey’s General Stores has announced that it has received a $1.5 billion takeover offer worth about $40 per share from an unnamed company, a bid that is above the recent $38.50 bids made by Alimentation Couche-Tard. Casey’s board of directors, which has rejected the Couche-Tard offers, says that the new bid also is too low, but has authorized negotiations with the new bidder.

    The board has yet to negotiate with Couche-Tard, which has been in the hunt for months, and recently completed a $38 per share buyback effort designed to stave off the Couche-Tard moves.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, “Couche-Tard said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that is pleased that Casey's has ‘finally’ put itself up for sale and that it ‘looks forward to participating in Casey's auction process.’ But the company did express surprise and suspicion over the disclosure's timing, coming two weeks before Casey's annual meeting and shortly after the buyback's completion.”

    The also notes that speculation is that the unnamed new bidder is a private equity group that would be more likely to keep current management in place.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    Internet Retailer reports on a new study saying that “83% of online buyers shop on the web at least once a week.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    • Publix Super Markets said yesterday that since 2007, when it began a variety of initiatives to reduce the use of paper and plastic disposable bags at checkout, it has saved more than a billion such bags. The efforts have included recycling and the promotion of reusable cloth bags.

    • Drugstore chain RiteAid said yesterday that it will begin selling groceries in 10 of its South Carolina stores, as part of a test of new deal with Supervalu. The licensed stores will be owned by Rite Aid, but will be called Save-A-Lot Food Stores/Rite Aid Pharmacy - as both Rite Aid and Supervalu look for ways to expand their presence and grow their sales.

    Rite Aid said that it is trying to customize stores for appropriate markets, and that success with the new format will not necessarily lead to a national roll out of the format.

    • The Wall Street Journal reports that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned the manufacturers of both Canada Dry ginger ale and Lipton tea about what the federal agency says is the making of unsubstantiated health claims for green tea-flavored products.

    The FDA told Canada Dry that it should not be making claims about antioxidants, and Lipton that it should not be mentioning cholesterol-lowering studies on the label. The manufacturers now have 15 days to respond to the warnings.

    • Procter & Gamble has announced that it will begin compressing all of its powdered laundry detergents sold in the US and Canada, effective February 2011. The move will allow P&G to use smaller cartons for detergents that will clean the same number of loads as the larger boxes, thus saving on packaging and reducing fuel used in the transport of product.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    • Kraft Foods announced that its chief marketing officer, Mary Beth West, has also taken on the job of chief category officer, with responsibility for the gum, candy, chocolate and business global category teams.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 8, 2010

    Responding to yesterday’s story about Procter & Gamble’s decision to roll out its Tide Dry Cleaners concept after a successful test, one MNB user remained skeptical:

    I'll stick my neck out and predict that Tide Dry Cleaners will meet the same fate as General Food's Hardy's and Borden's Borden Burger fast food restaurant chains.   In recent years attempts to launch chains of funeral homes and florists have also floundered. 

    Moreover, the trend towards clothing that does not require dry cleaning and more casual business attire would indicate that dry cleaning is a declining industry.

    Regarding a study suggesting that gas prices continue to affect other spending, though not as much as a year ago, MNB user Steven Barry wrote:

    This sounds like just another distraction from what are problems really are.  You could associate these numbers with just about factor.   The real problem remains jobs and the roll Washington is playing in slowing or stalling any type of rebound.

    We had a piece yesterday about A&P’s continuing troubles, which it may try to address by selling Food Emporium, one of the few “jewels” it has left. I’m not sure it makes sense to sell something that works, though that may be one of the few options left for the troubled retailer. One MNB user wrote:

    A&P has a history of taking the money from the disposition of their A&P Canada group and Farmer Jack’s and squandering it.  I doubt that they will do more than postpone the inevitable by keeping the company afloat for another year or two with the cash from Food Emporium.  Food Emporium is the only chain that really provides a great customer experience and is a “temple to food” as Mario Batali would say.  It is in the market where A&P has leading market share; and it is the chain that the rest of A&P could really learn from.  Better that they should sell the Super Fresh stores in Philadelphia to Angelo Gordon to be a southern extension of Kings (Judy Spiers knows Philly) or the Long Island Pathmarks to Fairway (they will eventually get to Long Island and kick their butt anyway) and convert the Waldbaums on Long Island to Food Emporiums.  At least they would have a defensible plan to move forward.  A&P has been selling their stores in DC/Balt for 10 years.  The ones that they still own are the ones that they thought were worth more than people were willing to pay.   The problem is, these stores are now worth far less than the value they would have received 10 years ago. They need to sell the dogs and invest in the stars; not the other way around.

    Regarding the California State Senate’s decision not to adopt a statewide ban on plastic disposable shopping bags, MNB user Jim Veregge wrote:

    Kevin, the grocery industry's main "gripe" regarding these types of ridiculous laws is that grocery stores are being the only ones targeted.  Convenience stores, electronics stores, fast-food restaurants and others that use plastic bags are conveniently left out of the narrowly targeted legislation.  If these laws apply to your local neighborhood grocery store, then they should also apply to all other businesses that use the same type of plastic bags (probably produced by the same plastic bag manufacturers).  Kudos to you for "walking the talk" in terms of using cloth bags when you visit the grocery store; this needs to catch-on with others.

    One question though: do you also take those bags with you when you visit non-grocery stores to purchase product?

    I agree - such laws need to apply to everyone.

    And yes, I do ... not always, but as often as I remember, which is fairly frequently. And I try to do better.

    And, about my personal use of canvas shopping bags, one MNB user wrote:

    I also carry a Reisenthel Market Basket, a collapsible basket. You can easily see what’s in your basket and not have to worry about those pesky germs on the store’s baskets. Check them out. They should be one of your sponsors…

    From your lips...

    I’ll check them out.

    Of course, not everyone is so enlightened. One MNB user wrote:

    Finally the govt. got defeated in something. Praise the lord. As for me I will NEVER bring my own bags to the grocery store and yes I use plastic.

    Fascinating how you invoke “the lord” in making a statement that some of us would view as tantamount to saying, “screw the environment, I’ll do whatever I want and is convenient for me.”

    Of course, not everybody views the choice that way. Nor the lord, for that matter.

    And another MNB user wrote:

    Right on Kevin…use your bags because you think it’s the right thing to do, that’s grass roots.  As far as the millions of ad dollars being dumped to “convince” the shopper plastic is good…well the eternal struggle of good vs. evil goes on.

    Yesterday’s Eye-Opener concerned the likelihood that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will be online only, which led one MNB user to write:

    Your eye opening comment on the Oxford English Dictionary going digital comes just days after my boss commented on the fact that I have a dictionary on my desk. He didn't find it odd that I use one, more the fact that I use a physical dictionary rather than one on-line.  I have to say that I often look up words that pop into my head in order to make sure that I am using them correctly. When I do so I find it so convenient to just reach over and grab my 10th edition of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. I'm not sure if I can find words any quicker in the book vs. on-line, but I get kick out of thumbing through the pages and seeing all of the words that I have looked up in the past (because I underline every word that I look up in red ink). An on-line dictionary would be convenient, but it just wouldn't give me that same feeling of consulting a wise old friend.

    MNB user Richard Thorpe wrote:

    Love to hear your view (thoughts) on whether all books/mags/newspaper eventually being 100% digital will further divide our society. Technology costs and many American families cannot afford internet access at home. Therefore, we must increase our availability of access at libraries and schools, government buildings and perhaps even private businesses. This will cost society (taxes). If we separate our populace we risk much in a free society.

    Seems to me that we are rapidly reaching the point where internet access is going to be like indoor plumbing and electricity - a standard utility that every household will need to have in order to survive.

    Will this cost money? Sure. But I’d consider it an investment in the future. In one of those houses, some kid will get access to the internet, which will spark his or her imagination, which will lead to the kind of innovation that will keep our nation relevant and vibrant. If we don’t make the investment, we risk falling to the wayside.

    All sorts of folks like to talk about “American exceptionalism,” as if it is some perpetual right. I’ve always believed that it is something to be earned, every day...and when you start considering it a right as opposed to a privilege, it is the first step down the path to complacency and national decline.

    I referred to the paper and ink that make up a traditional dictionary as mere wrapping paper - that what is important is the words and the communication of knowledge. Which led one MNB user to write:

    Sort of like accepting that high quality wine will one day only be offered in a box because it is more environmentally friendly, will keep better if unused and uses less store space to merchandise.  The bottle and cork are simply wine’s “wrapping paper.”  While I agree that a box does not seem as romantic as a bottle, what difference is there really between wine from a box poured into a craft and placed on the table and an actual bottle, as long as it is a quality vintage?   The simple truth is, like a dictionary’s mission is to educate people about words, wine’s mission is to bring enjoyment to those that drink it responsibly.

    Welcome back from vacation, I’m not trying to take a cheap shot, but simply wanted to point out that all of us have things of the past that we cling to in a changing world.  The important part is to not allow those feelings interfere with making intelligent business decisions.

    Point taken.

    Am I entirely consistent on these issues? Of course not.

    I can wax rhapsodic about the romance of corked wine bottles until the cows come home, but I recognize in my heart that maybe I’m becoming something of an anachronism. Hey, I still buy physical books from specific authors because I want their reassuring presence in my hands and eventually on my shelves...and I still get the newspaper delivered each day because I love that experience.

    But I accept the inevitable. And try to move with it, best I can.

    Which is all any of us can do.

    And, we continue to get email about my Lone Ranger joke and the lesson I think it teaches about generational communications.

    MNB user Ted File wrote:

    Oh boy, you hit the hammer right on the head.    For some time when our kids were growing I told them about the Burma Shave boards on the highways and they said "Burma Who?"    But when I told them some of the messages on the signs they said WOW those are great and it added a little fun to the drive.   Then there was Hap Harrington, Gulliver's Travel and many kids books still lying around the house that my dear wife is hoping that some day some child will want them.    But guess my wife will some day give them away as memories of days gone by. But that is life isn't it?

    And I loved this email from an MNB user:

    I was in a presentation about a new database management application.  The presenter closed his 25 minute pitch a compelling summary of all the new capabilities and ended with the line, “so Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

    A gentleman in the front--an Indian national--raised his hand and politely asked when the business was moved out of Kansas and for what reason.

    An excellent point. There are cultural divides as well as generational divides, and we have to be aware of them.
    That’s not to say that we throw away all those allusions and touchstones. Far from it. (Look at all the pop culture references that I throw into MNB, knowing that a certain percentage audience of the audience may not know what I’m talking about. But that’s what Google is for...and I try to explain the references and metaphors whenever necessary.)

    All I am saying here is that it makes sense to understand the cultural languages of the people with whom we are trying to communicate, so we don’t end up talking to ourselves.
    KC's View: