Published on: December 15, 2015by Michael Sansolo
A few years back, as an industry executive accepted a prestigious lifetime achievement award, he observed that he likely would be the last person ever to win the award who actually knew the person for whom it had been named.
I’ve no idea if that prediction was correct, but the implication was clear. With time, people, places and companies change and we sometime forget things we need to remember.
There’s a special reason to bring up that moment here at the end of 2015. This year marked the end of the food retailer that once dominated the landscape like no one before or since. A&P, once the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, is no more. Its Wikipedia-entry now lists 2015 in obituary fashion, as the year of the company’s demise.
Already there are countless people in this industry who have no personal knowledge of the company. They never entered an A&P store, never competed against it and quite possibly never gave the company a second thought because it didn’t matter to them. A&P now has been relegated to history.
But that history should not be forgotten, even as we rush headlong into discussions of the emerging industry supercharged by the world of electronic commerce. The A&P story is one worth revisiting, even in the heavily abridged version offered by Wikipedia.
It is an amazing story of how the company grew from nothing into a force so large that the US government kept finding ways to limit its power. The company’s history is a tale of visionary leadership using cutting edge ideas and incredible internal disciplines to grow in size and influence. At a time, A&P helped shape the entire national culture and influenced industries far from food and far from these shores.
However, it also is a story of what happens when leadership loses its way, when succession plans are poorly thought out and short-term thinking blots out and obliterates internal disciplines. It’s a story of a company that lost focus on the cutting edge and lost its sense of changing customer needs and values.
Lastly, it becomes a story of a company so desperate to regain relevance that resorts to grasping at strategies such as poorly conceived mergers to stem declines in sales and profits.
And like any tragic story, A&P’s tale is complete with bad luck and poor timing that at every turn managed to overwhelm any strategic attempts the company made to revitalize itself.In other words, the story of A&P is a tale of a business empire’s rise and fall that is dramatic, instructive and sad beyond words. But here’s the thing: it’s a story that shouldn’t be forgotten because it so clearly demonstrates both the right and wrong way for a company to grow, prosper and deal with changing times.
It could always happen again. If we are mindful of history, though, perhaps it is less likely that it will.
In "The Lord of the Rings," JRR Tolkien wrote: “Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.”
The lessons of A&P's collapse are not as earth-shattering as Tolkien’s “ring of power,” but they remind us of how even the largest and most powerful company can lose its way and completely fail.
That’s a tale that shouldn’t fall out of memory anytime soon, at the end of this year or any year to follow.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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