Memories of a Corporate Gadfly-Evelyn Y. Davis

davisI woke up to the news that notorious, self-style “corporate gadfly” Evelyn Y. Davis had died. The last time I saw her was when I covered the General Motors shareholders meeting in 2004. I saw her, and heard her, and avoided her, but alas, stuck in the pressroom at Wilmington, Delaware’s Hotel DuPont I was a sitting duck and she had her verbal shotgun locked at loaded.  Screaming in her Dutch-German accent she took me to task with, “Ed Gaaaahhhsten! Why aren’t you talking to me. I am a verrrrryy, verryyyy important person. More important than (then GM CEO) Rick Wagoner!” The other reporters found excuses to visit other parts of the building knowing they could be next.

You see, we had a history. It got off to a decent start, when, having just been transferred to Detroit by CNN as its new bureau chief and correspondent, I would cover my first GM shareholders meeting, then held a block from our bureau in Detroit’s Fischer Building, near GM’s original headquarters. Our assignment manager knew of Ms. Davis and her antics at various shareholders meetings and booked time with her for us to do an interview for an eventual profile. The morning of the GM meeting we met her in her suite at the what was then the Westin hotel in the Renaissance Center. She had a spread of danish, bagels, juice and coffee ready for us. We enjoyed a bit of that and conducted the interview which was, in itself, a meal of outrageous and self-aggrandizing statements, but television gold.

We later caught up with her as she arrived at the GM meeting where she sought CEO Roger Smith like a heat seeking missile. His already red face was now more crimson than the University of Alabama tide. So I ask Mr. Smith, “is Ms. Davis a pain in the neck to you?” He looked at her, obviously had one honest answer in mind, then looked at me and said, “of course not. She’s an important shareholder.” We held in a laugh, so as not to ruin the obviously less than candid soundbite.

Our intention was to actually turn the piece around that day, but real life events took over, namely the horror of Tienanmen Square in China and just about every other story was killed, including the very trivial profile of one Evelyn Y. Davis.

When she didn’t see the story on the air, Ms. Davis first screeched at me on the phone that we wasted her very “valuable” time and besides “I bought you danish and coffee!” She demanded I send my footage to NBC because she “worked a deal” where they would run the story. Of course, that wasn’t gonna happen, so she took it out of us in her annual publication called “Highlights and Lowlights,” recapping her year’s activities and giving her own analysis of what corporate leaders did right and wrong. I was granted the status of a “Lowlight” for again, wasting her time. It did not hurt my career.

I had several more encounters with Ms. Davis over the years as I moved from CNN to covering autos for the Associated Press and The Detroit News. She gave me crap every time but I would sometimes humor her with a short interview or use one of her outrageous quotes in a story. By the last time we spoke all seemed to be healed.

Evelyn Y. Davis was one of life’s great characters who could be infuriating but at the same time colorful and welcome because no one could shake an arrogant executive from his or her pedestal like her..or even make them actually smile, as in the case of Ford executive chairman Bill Ford Jr.

After saying her piece, several times at the Blue Oval’s meeting in Detroit, she said she had to leave to catch a plane. The crowd applauded..and cheered. But a few moments after walking out the door she returned, interrupting the proceedings hollering, “I can’t get a cab to the airport!” At which Mr. Ford grinned as he told her, “oh, don’t worry, we’ll get you to the airport.”

RIP Evelyn Y. Davis.

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The Joys of the Absentee Ballot

ivotedabsenteeI spent a good part of my Sunday filling out my absentee ballot and I must tell you that once you’ve voted this way, there’s no turning back. First of all, they don’t provide/offer/support bringing snacks or beverages of any sort into the polling place, but I had it all as I spread my two-foot long ballot on the counter top in my basement. I’m not complaining about the length of the ballot, but I read the entire Cheescake Factory menu in less time. When you’re faced with considering such important decisions at the polling place you feel rushed and the eyes of those waiting in line piercing your back in hopes of vaporizing your body just so they can use your little booth or enclosure and take their own time filling in the little boxes.

Ah yes…the boxes! Really? In an age where a little camera-car on Mars can be operated from Earth, they can’t come up with a more efficient way to fill out a ballot?

But at home, glorious in my absenteeism, I can have some fun spreading out 14 different pens and Sharpies and choosing different ones for different races…all while stuffing my face with Fritos. This is democracy in action!

In between swills of Shiner Octoberfest I carefully considered the candidates and the issues, although, I honestly had my mind made up beforehand after doing my due diligence, including sensible snack/beverage/referendum pairings. 

I probably took an hour to complete my ballot because one simply doesn’t rush such momentous undertakings and I take great pride in my box-filling abilities, never straying beyond the lines. 

By the time I was done I felt totally fulfilled, and full….with a bit of a buzz. Don’t get me wrong. I take voting very seriously. I won’t get on a soapbox supporting one party or position, except for the position that voting is everyone’s right and responsibility and should be one of those calendar entries that’s set in stone. Don’t vote? Don’t complain.

However, it was really nice just being able to take my time in the comfort of my home without the old guy at the  polling place scolding me about not tearing off the tab or inserting my ballot incorrectly into the machine. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong! Whatsmatterwitu kid!” Yeah..don’t miss that. What I do miss though..is getting that little “I Voted” sticker. But I did vote. And so should you..wherever you are. Absentee or in-person. Just don’t be absent…and bring a good pen. 

Papering Over the Generational Divide

2b4b7e58395b5478af2f25a6f2bca330Earlier this week I found myself at a local community college for a business meeting. I got there early and decided to find a spot in the student center where I could go over my notes. I set up camp at a high top in the snack bar then made a choice. I had all my notes stored electronically on my tablet, but also on printed pages in a folder. Hmm..I’m in a place crawling with college students, sitting among them in a jacket and tie, so I already stuck out like a pastrami sandwich at a vegan restaurant. What the hell, I whipped out my old school file folder, spread the pages out and completed the tableau by scribbling notes with an actual pen.

It was too easy. Not 10 seconds elapsed before creatures in their teens and early 20’s started finding excuses to buzz by me. Some were blatant by craning their necks or lingering just a little too long. Others tried to play it cool straining their peripheral vision to its max as they adjusted their route between the coffee machine and their table to include a recon sortie past me.  I loved the looks that telegraphed their quandary and confusion. I imagined them asking themselves, “what the hell’s this dressed up dude doing with actual paper and a ‘analog’ writing thingy doing here? Is he a spy, a narc, terribly lost or just a creep?”

As each one walked by for a closer look at my strange activity I made sure I scribbled some notes because I knew none of them could decode what I wrote in the long-lost form called cursive. That only piqued their interest further because now they would wonder what I wrote…about them? About the school? About the awesome chicken nuggets at the grab and go snack bar? Ha! If only they had developed the skill once taught called “handwriting,” they would know I was writing, “I’ve gotta stop. I might piss my pants.”

The whole exercise was pretty entertaining if not self-serving and put me in just the frame of mind for my meeting. I headed for the conference room with a pretty incandescent smile slapped on my puss. Most of the participants were closer to my age, and as the conference got underway we gave each other inquiring looks, seemed to get the right signals…and whipped out our pads…and pens. I think the meeting went pretty well, but I’ll check my notes.

Mother Nature’s Seasonal Scam

LeavesOn this beautiful, sunny, fall day when I could have taken a brisk walk through the crimson and gold canopy provided by the trees on the nearby township trail, I instead blew and afternoon removing fallen leaves from my lawn, landscape plantings and driveway.

I’ve long given up bagging the damn things in favor of the much more sensible and environmentally smart option of mulching them with my mower. That not only feeds my lawn with natural fertilizer but saves my back from one of the most useless tasks ever invented by, I’m guess, the people who produce and sell rakes and giant brown leaf bags.

Still, the whole thing is a royal pain and it got me thinking about what’s really going on here. After spitting out my eighth mouthful of airborne maple leaf particles it hit me. Mother Nature is taking advantage of a failure of evolution to scam us into doing stupid stuff our ancestors never bothered with. In fact, I think she’s making a good buck by investing in “stupid job paraphernalia.” Stay with me. Here’s how it’s going down.

Sticky suit leaf collection systemMother Nature, knowing all, as most moms do, saw a trend just as Earthlings started figuring out how to get machines to do work they didn’t want to do. “Hmm…” thought Mom Nature, “what if I plant the seed, since I’m good at planting seeds, as well as bulbs, in people’s minds, that things that happen naturally need to be screwed with. Those who resist will become the bane of their subdivisions and called on the carpet by the condo board for not interfering with an otherwise natural process…like leaves falling in the, duh, fall, or moving snow from here….to there? Those idiots will need to buy all sorts of implements, power tools and supplies to do those jobs. And..and..oh wow! Other people who know that so many people don’t wanna do those jobs will start businesses to do those jobs for those lazy people and I can be a silent partner in all of that and retire to the most Unnatural place in the world…Las Vegas, where no one ever sees the light of day, which means I’m off the hook for good!”

channelate-comics-servant-leaves-1601563I’m imagining this evil scenario as my arms, shoulders and back send my brain messages to the tune of “you’re a schmuck, a sucker for Mother Nature’s money making scheme so we have to suffer?” Being Jewish, I immediately felt pangs of guilt, made myself a pot of chicken soup and binge watched “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” since her husband is an even bigger schmuck, thereby helping me regain a morsel of self-respect.

A few hours later, as I walked down to my mailbox stuffed with bills and political hate propaganda, I couldn’t help smile as I checked out my immaculate lawn. Crap, it looked great. Not just great, a billion times nicer than any of my neighbors’ lawns. Someone driving down my street would tell right away I foolishly took the whole stupid leaf thing way too seriously. In fact, I distinctly heard a bald guy with a severe mid-life crisis driving his Camaro with the top down nod and cackle as he slowed down in front of my place, “Mother Nature screwed you too?” I’m considering large quantities of Roundup.

Closing the Catalog on Sears

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See those awesome overalls I’m modeling? I bought those from the Sears catalog. In 1984. I still mow my lawn in them, saw wood in them, suck up my leaves in them and do any sort of hard work that’ll get me good and dirty and feeling revived in them. You can’t kill ’em. Oh sure, they have grass stains and paint stains and some other stains you don’t need to know about that just won’t come out in the wash. They have a million pockets for tools and screws and nails, a box cutter, a pencil for measuring, a level, some string a candy bar and my phone. There’s probably some saw dust living deep in one of those pockets from back when I bought them to build a deck behind my house in Atlanta. Yeah, washing ’em won’t free those particles–pockets are too deep. It’s ok. I like how they smell.

What I’m getting at is my trusty, dusty overalls remind me, every time I stuff my body into them, of the quality Sears was known for. Sure, I could have found a pair of decent work pants somewhere else but I specifically ordered them from Sears because I knew they’d be up to the task, and another task, and another and another and scores more.

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Oh folks blame Sears demise on not keeping up with Walmart or Amazon and that may be true, in part. But I look at it another way. Maybe shoppers who are too impatient or not discriminating enough or just plain cheap made the decision to exchange quality for price and expediency. I’m sure had I bought those overalls someplace else I’d be on my fourth pair by now, not my fourth decade with the same ones. Yes, the stores became dated and dumpy and less inviting, and for that I blame inept management that was tone deaf to the changing marketplace and consumer tastes and reacted way too late.

But I’m one to reward quality with loyalty, I don’t care how dumpy your store it. We always bought Kenmore appliances and they never failed us. Last year we moved out of a house we lived in for 25 years and the Kenmore fridge we bought for it in 1992 was still working like new when we gave a little goodbye tap and thanked it for its service on our way out. 

When our watch batteries run down, we don’t buy one at Walmart and install it ourselves. We stop by the little watch repair desk at our closest Sears and let a guy with thick glasses and the sure hands of an expert do the job. It only cost a couple of bucks more to have it done right. Oh, when my Sears is shuttered I’ll go to the local watch repair shop because I like to support neighborhood businesses, but the Sears guy had me at “take two minutes!” And it did.

If my watch battery dies while I’m mowing the lawn, I just might show up at the repair shop in those Sears overalls…with the deep pockets that have been keeping my stuff safe and handy since 1984. I’ll reach way down, yank out my dead timepiece..bought at the store whose time has passed.

 

 

Mis- (baby)Carriage Of Justice

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How much industrial strength does it really take to transport a person that may weigh between 9 and 20 pounds? If a weekend trip to the mall is any indication, I would deduce the answer falls somewhere between a Hummer and steam freighter.

As my son and I attempted to walk, leisurely, between stores, we were confronted by a combination convoy, flotilla of conveyances bearing down on us, building up a head of steam provided by a snarling mob of bipeds all muttering to no one in particular, “why couldn’t I be sterile?”

paquinbabyIt’s really difficult to fathom why it takes such structural might to push a little kid around. But I get it, because this is not a new story. My kids were born in 1984 and 1988 in Atlanta. Back then, in the height of Yuppy arrogance, young couples starting their families somehow became obnoxious social climbers. Here’s how it went down.

 

maxitaxiBack then there were two main choices of strollers: The $70 Maxi Taxi, which did the job quite well and conveniently folded by just squeezing a plastic bar just under the push handle.

 

apricaThen there was the $300 Aprica. At least that what it cost back then. This was overkill to the max. Indeed, it made the Maxi Taxi look like a Mini Pushcart. Big and blue and a million adjustments and fancy wheels and compartments. We chose the Maxi Taxi because, well, we weren’t insecure assholes who felt they needed to make some sort of statement about our station in life with an exorbitantly priced way to tote our tiny little kid. Indeed, when we encountered an “Aprica couple” they would eye our Maxi Taxi with the same disdain one might show nutritional information on a McDonalds menu.

The situation has only gotten worse with even more elaborate strollers, carriages and prams plying the sidewalks and walkways. They’re so immense I expect to see one some day with a snow plow stuck on the front and a tow hook in the rear just to help the couple who were suckered into buying the beasts amortize the cost of the things by using them to make a few bucks taking on odd jobs.

There is justice however. This actually happened just this Saturday. As my son and I sat in our car about to leave the mall, we watch a couple with a medium sized stroller approach their vehicle. stroller1There was no kid in the stroller. In fact, a stuffed bear occupied the kid’s seat and the mom was holding the little one. The dumb dad was of zero help as mom struggled to get the kid in the car. No, dumb dad had put a sweet drink in the stroller’s cupholder. Wait! Why you need a cupholder in a stroller? Oh yeah, so parents can park their lattes! Anyway, A couple of hornets were attracted to the drink and hovered around. Dumb dad was also cowardly dad and he took refuge behind the next car while mom flailed away. She was good! While wimpy husband cowered, she managed to pop the trunk and fold the stroller after putting the kid in the child seat inside. But she wasn’t that good. She tossed the stroller in the trunk…with both hornets still sucking on the soft drink. Closes the lid and gets in the car. So does dumb dad. A moment later, the doors fly open as both parents flee the bees, leaving poor little kid inside, defenseless. Now…if only they saved the dough and bought a sensible stroller— without a cupholder.

Oh No! I’m A Consultant!

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This summer I became something I never thought I would be, or want to be. In fact, I’d never before used the word in a positive light, let alone aspire to become one. Yes…I’ve become a..a..a..consultant!

Some of you may have seen the really flattering news release, tweets and Linkedin posts from the kind folks at Detroit public relations firm Franco PR announcing my engagement with them as an “Integrated Media Consultant.” That’s lofty language for someone with a lotta miles on them in a position to perhaps share some guidance and insight based on 45 years of experience in journalism, broadcasting, social media and corporate public relations.

So why the initial turned up nose at the word “consultant?” To be honest, it started at my very first television job as a weekend weather guy at KGUN-TV in Tucson, Arizona, where I worked while earning my MA in journalism back in the late 1970’s. Our station had a kickass staff of reporters and videographers and actually paid better than our competition. The problem was, our ratings were awful–last in the market. How bad were they? If my memory serves me, reruns of MASH had a 40 share. The share for our early newscast, which followed directly after MASH was a measly 18. Now those were the days before remotes. Viewers had to actually get up off their chairs or sofas, walk over to the TV and switch channels. That’s how much they hated us. What to do? Call in consultants!

My station employed a pair of consultants–a fired news director and a woman who’s fashion sense could only be described, kindly, as, um, “industrial.” The first thing these idiots did was destroy everyone’s confidence. They spooked our anchor guy so much and made him so self-conscious he actually wrote himself a reminder on the set that said, “Don’t over-emote, don’t over gesture, don’t touch your pee-pee.” He’s not an anchor man anymore.

In my case they were borderline anti-Semitic. One of my signature things to say when only a light rain was forecast was to use the word “spritz.” My audience loved it since it’s not a word often heard in southern Arizona which made it memorable. When I was recognized on the street somewhere, often a viewer would smile and ask, “hey Ed, is it  gonna spritz today?” It’s always helpful to have your own buzzword.  But not according to our genius consultants. I was told to drop “spritz” because, they said, “it’s just too..um..Eastern!” I countered, “do you mean it’s too..um..Jewish?” The dynamic duo could only look at their Kmart shoes and stammer..”uh..no, of course not..um…why don’t we talk about your wardrobe?”

Ah..wardrobe! The woman consultant who’s favorite designer may have been Coleman, as in tents, deigned to offer advice on how to appear on television. Her sense of fashion leaned towards what someone like, oh, Oleg Cassini may have categorized as “tres fooking boring!” Then they told me to act “natural.” When I explained that I was, they offered, “well, try acting naturally a different way!” Hey..thanks! You morons.

The upshot of all this great advice? Our ratings sunk even lower, and they were fired. So was our news director and shortly thereafter, I was lucky enough to escape after landing a job with the then, up and coming CNN to help them launch their second network, then known as CNN2 and now HLN.

Well, that was my first, scarring experience with consultants and it always stayed with me. I know there are many, many fine consultants out there. I just had a bad first experience. Now it’s my turn in that position and I’m using that experience to help shape my approach. I know full well that people are always a bit suspicious of “that outside guy” and may feel threatened. I plan to be as good a listener as talker, simply offer some respectful insight into different ways of doing things, perhaps some advice and a lot of information. Use it as you wish, or not at all. Hopefully I’ll be helpful and at the least, get folks thinking and spark some creative ideas, all in the service of satisfying clients and of course, making money.

I just plan to act naturallly…in my own way. Hope it helps.