This week marks a year since I retired. It also marks eight months since I retired from retiring, although only partially. When I swiped my badge for the last time after 11 years at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles on July 29, 2016 I took a deep breath as I imagined a freed prisoner having done hard time would do, inhaling fresh air and marveling in the blue sky and bright sun. My lockups had been conference rooms and stuffy offices. My shackles were a corporate culture where too many employees cared about the size of their workspaces rather than the quality of their work…with the bold exception of my amazing FCA Digital Media team…the best in the business.
Now, all I had to navigate were the aisles of the supermarket with my wife who, like a field general, marched us from meat to melons to milk plundering the shelves and making a beeline to the checkout unscathed by less focused shoppers, meandering with their carts with no purpose or strategy. We emerged the victors every single time reveling in many dollars of coupon savings. We went out to lunch and paddled the Huron River, hiked nearby trails and took roadtrips. There was no schedule, no Outlook calendar entries, no meetings or town halls. There was only all the time in the world to do whatever, whenever. We ate dinner as a family every single night and spent every night together. It was perfect. It was retirement. It was too good to last.
It ended on October 17th. That’s the day I began a part-time job at Automotive News on their video team. We would say I was now, “semi-retired” which means you work a little..in my case a max of 29 hours a week, have no career aspirations other than keeping your nose clean, doing a great job and having some fun while you earn a few bucks to pay your Medicare and bourbon bills. When you show up people seem happy. When you need to take a day off for one thing or another, no one minds and when you offer some insight based on many years of experience, it’s appreciated. Sometimes I show my age with some timeworn reference and my younger colleagues give me crap, but it’s all in fun because they know I have no interest in their jobs. They work a full damned week! I have every Friday off and most any other day if I need one. Maybe the best part of it all is having a chance to continue to do the kind of work I’ve enjoyed for so many years, but in much smaller bites. Most days I’m home by 2 or 3 and rarely, if ever, miss dinner. I still play ice hockey once in awhile and mow my own lawn.
I’m no Rockefeller (timeworn reference) but we’re comfortable, so it’s not about the paycheck. The currency I crave comes in denominations of relevance, sharing, team work, curiosity, social connection and fun.
I don’t know when I’ll make the move back from “semi” to full retirement. Right now I’m having too much fun..and I’m still around enough to push the shopping cart for my wife at the supermarket, lug the heavy jugs of milk and juice, and reach some items on the top shelves..on my tippy toes.
On the occasion of my retirement this week, I thought I’d relate my long work history and the 8 very important workplace lessons I learned along the way.
My first paying job was at Mel’s Laundromat on Union Turnpike and 248th Street in Queens. Might have been around 1962. Now, everyone knows the “mat” part of “laundramat” means you do it yourself, but I got paid 25 cents a day to do it for busy or working moms who didn’t have the time or desire to hang around a hot, steamy, dumpy store while their family’s dirty clothes went round and round in the washer and dryer for more than an hour. That first work experience taught me workplace lesson number 1 –don’t ask for a raise after blowing a bubble all over your face. The boss will never take you seriously.
I quickly moved on to a much more high paying job, scoring a summer job as an assistant counselor at Great Neck Country Day Camp in tony Great Neck Long Island. At a sweet salary of $25 plus tips for the summer, that represented a big raise and I immediately began investing heavily…in Clearasil. I did so well, they hired me back at twice the money the following year and at that income level I had an endless supply of egg creams and Clark Bars. Yes. I was living the high life. That’s when I learned workplace lesson number 2–using your hard earned money to buy sugary treats makes you fat and pimply and offensive to any and all females.
By high school I gave up my starting position on the Martin Van Buren varsity soccer team to work in the linens and domestics department of the S. Klein department store in Lake Success, Long Island. It was a clear case of irony, since despite its lofty sounding location, the S. Klein chain went bankrupt, which, unknown to me then, led to workplace lesson number 3–you are now prepared to work in the auto industry.
During my college days I scored a political patronage job with the NYC Comptroller’s officer courtesy of my mother’s connections through the Eastern Queen Democratic Club. My job was to type out the checks to people who successfully sued the City of New York for car damage from potholes. The city was not a fast payer. In 1971 I wrote a check to someone who sued the city in 1957. Maybe the city believed if they waited for the payee to croak, the check would never be cashed. Hence, workplace lesson number 4–if you drag your heels long enough you might escape doing anything that requires actually working.
Once I entered the full time working world after graduating college I worked at a series crappy radio stations in Central New York and Tucson, Arizona. At the station in Tucson the general manager’s head popped through the roof right over the microphone while I was reading a newscast. “Dang!” he said in his big Texan drawl. “That ain’t right.” Yup. Workplace lesson number 5: Bosses will stick their heads where they don’t belong.
From there it was television station KGUN in Tucson where I was both the weekend weather caster and midweek nightside general assignment reporter. It could be confusing. One time when I covered a murder, as they brought the body out of the house a Tucson cop cracked, “why’s the weather guy here? Is it gonna rain on the stiff?”
Somehow that job led to being hired by CNN as one of the original producers of CNN2, which morphed into CNN Headline News, which much later, morphed in an unrecognizable channel I never watch. Over the next 20 years I would move from producer to correspondent, spot anchor and finally, Detroit Bureau Chief and correspondent until I was laid off in 2001 as part of that awesome merger between Time Warner and AOL. I was actually laid off one day after interviewing the authors of a book on why employee evaluations are a total waste. When I asked why I was chosen to be laid off, the boss said, “now’s not the time.” Oh. Guess what? The boss ended up getting canned too. That led to workplace lesson number 6: Karma always wins.
A stint as national auto writer at the Associated Press and General Motors beat writer at The Detroit News followed. Two great jobs that taught me workplace lesson number 7: going to work is more fun when you don’t have to wear makeup.
And now..the end of the road. After 43 years in the workforce I’m hanging it up. I’ve spent the past 11 years at DaimlerChryslerChryslerFiatChryslerAutomobiles as the head of its digital communications team, which is a really wonderful, groundbreaking combination of broadcast, social media and video production. The job was created just for me. How lucky is that? It’s been a crazy ride through three owners, one bankruptcy and one gentle idiot who asked if we could post an item on both the “national and international Internet.” We assured him that since he asked nicely, we would accommodate that lofty request. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful team who will give most any of my nutty ideas a try and actually make them work. I will miss them terribly, but now it’s time to focus on my family, which has had to put up with my crazy hours and travel for many years, and to tackle some personal projects such as playing my drums for hours on end in order to smoke out those neighbors I haven’t yet met.
That leads to my 8th and final workplace lesson: When you’ve worked more years than most of your employee’s parents have been alive, it’s time to pack your paper clips and post it notes and, stop, smell the roses, and enjoy going to Kroger on a Tuesday, push the cart for your wife and carry home those heavy jugs of milk and orange juice. She’ll appreciate that.
I never intended to stay for 10 years..or even two. I just wanted to take a short break from news, try something different, then return to the streets to hunt and write stories. But what happened instead was the opportunity to build and develop a team in a corporate setting that pioneered the concept of “corporate journalism” by developing an in-house digital newsroom complete with field crews, reporters, social media channels and feeding into our top-rated media website.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. That isn’t the job I hired on to do. I was hired to launch, manage and be essentially, the ghost writer for then PR chief Jason Vines who wanted to start a new blog aimed directly at automotive journalists. Jason wanted an auto writer in that position who understood the business of both autos and journalism. So, feeling restless after three years of covering General Motors for The Detroit News I though the job sounded like fun and a nice short-term break from news. Blogging was still also relatively new with lots of promise for corporate use, so I wanted to get in on this emerging form of communication.
We called the blog TheFirehouse.biz, named after the Detroit firehouse Chrysler always turned into a bar and grill exclusively for reporters and guests during media preview days at the North American International Auto Show each January. The blog was an extension of the firehouse’s purpose of building relationships with the media.
TheFirehouse.biz made an immediate impact for two reasons. One, we broke every rule of blogging by only allowing working journalists entry to the site. That won us universal hatred from self-appointed “experts” who said there are no rules in blogging, then tried to hold us to one.
Second, we took on issues no company would touch, especially in a news release. The most impactful was one where we pilloried so-called “Big Oil” for artificially propping up fuel prices. That piece appeared, or was cited, in more than 2,000 publications and websites. Indeed, it was the lead story in the next day’s The Detroit News.
I remember giving a speech at a PR conference in Wiesbaden, Germany introducing European corporate communicators to TheFirehouse.biz’s unique “voice.” During the Q/A session one gentleman asked, “how do you get away with such repugnant rhetoric?” Then at lunch he sidled up to me and whispered, “I am so jealous of you. Congratulations!”
But that was just the beginning of our pioneering journey into a unified digital newsroom. About 10 months after launching TheFirehouse.biz we did our first product reveal via live webcast. Since there was no department dedicated to this, it fell in my lap. About this time I had applied for the long-vacant broadcast communications manager” position and before even being hired, was given those duties. I was promptly told by the person who temporarily held that responsibility the entire budget for the year was blown..and it was July!
That sparked the next chapter. With no money to hire a production company to create a video news release for an upcoming story, nor funds to finance distribution, we purchased a small mini DVD camera from a big box store and shot it ourselves. YouTube was just emerging and I thought, what if we just posted the VNR for free and sent out the link to the media? Well..that worked out pretty well since it cost us nothing to distribute the video and we won coverage as a result. All of a sudden my portfolio was growing , but I had no idea how much bigger it was going to get.
Mike Aberlich, who was second in command, had a brainstorm that would change my life and open the door to everything we accomplished over the next 10 years. He told me that not only would I be hired for that broadcast job, but since I had been a journalist in basically every medium- TV, radio, wires, newspapers, blogging-he’d create a team that would merge all of those disciplines and make me the head of it.
Our new team, Chrysler Electronic Communications, also included the company’s media website. Over a period of several months we stepped up our video production activities and instead of simply shooting video or soundbites for the media to use, we created self-contained stories and features that could be posted on websites. We called what we were doing “corporate journalism” long before the term was co-opted by PR agencies and “experts.” A simple video feature explaining how a waterfall we used at autoshows that created the words “Jeep” and various shapes won over a million views on YouTube.
We then created a weekly video recapping Chrysler news called “Under the Pentastar,” named for the company’s trademark. The name was changed in 2014 to “FCA Replay” when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was created and use of the Pentastar was discontinued. The feature has won awards from Women in Communications, PR News and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).
In short order we created three new positions called “Multimedia Editors,” who are essentially reporters embedded in the company. They cover beats such as brands, corporate matters, labor, technology , and are responsible for creating social media and video content as unique stories, or to create a multimedia package that augments news releases. Our Multimedia Editors, accompanied most times with a videographer from our team, cover stories the same as a field crew at a station or network. Our content is available for any media to use and is also posted on our blog, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube channels. It can also be found on our groundbreaking site, FCA Content on Demand, which is a constantly changing aggregation of internally and externally produced content that contains company news, features, blog posts, product reviews and videos.
All video we produce is hosted on our in-house video portal found on our media website, making it quick and easy for journalists to find the content they need and immediately download it.
Rounding out our multimedia activities is our Livestream webcasting channel, “FCA Live” and regular use of the smartphone webcasting apps Periscope and Meerkat.
Our evolution from a single blog to a self-contained, media website/social media/video production/ corporate news organization was only made possible by a team of creative and courageous individuals who never say “no” to trying new ideas and have the talent and skills to execute them successfully.
Our team is now called FCA Digital Media, but our mission is the same as it’s always been—contribute to the company’s success by creatively and strategically using digital means to communicate the value of its products, technologies, policies and people.
It gives me great pleasure to think about all we’ve accomplished as a team over the past 10 years. But that was then. We’re not nearly done.