Monday, December 8, 2008

Barring an Act of God

The following is a transcript of a recent “Late Night with Larry” broadcast.

Larry: Thanks for joining us tonight and I’m pleased to welcome this evening’s guest, Louis S. Seefer, the long time head of General Souls. He’s taking some time out of his busy schedule to share his experiences and market predictions with us. It’s a pleasure to have you here Mr. Seefer.

Lou: Please, call me Lou. Most of the time people call me Lou Seefer but let’s drop the formalities tonight.

Larry: Alright, Lou, and once again thanks for taking some time to stop by.

Lou: Not at all Larry, my pleasure to be here. It’s not all presidents, oil cartels, and major tax authorities you know.

Larry: Glad to hear it, but I imagine you have to focus on the market leaders and trend makers most of the time.

Lou: Sure, but we are in a big market and in the end its penetration that counts. I mean, just last week I had a chance to meet with two neighboring families who were discussing the details of getting a dividing fence between their properties. Things were going pretty badly, I mean they were close to a reasonable agreement, when I was able to bring things back to the main issue.

Larry: The dividing fence?

Lou: No, no - just the division. Whose property was larger, whose dog was relieving himself where, who would have more shade in the afternoon. One instant sale, and one that I am counting on for the end of the month.

Larry: Sounds like you’ve still got it Lou. I mean you’ve been running GS for, well, as long as I can remember. Tell us that how you got started.

Lou: Love to Larry. It’s a great story that I never tire of. Well it all started when I had a falling out with the Old Man. Back then he was really running the show, you know, the original God Father. It was his way or the highway. Not that we had many highways back then, but you get the idea.

Larry: Indeed I do.

Lou: Anyway, the Old Man had a sweet deal. Good products, good access to clients, and an army of fanatical staff at his beck and call. He’d practically just have to think something and it would be done. And vision! Taking him on didn’t seem very wise, but I was young and foolish, well mostly foolish really.

But to his credit, the Old Man gave me some leeway, and didn’t stamp me out the first chance he had. He didn’t see any need. He really believed (and still does) that his product line is the only one with any lasting value.

Larry: I guess he’s got a point there Lou.

Lou: No doubt he has Larry, but the customer is king, or at least wants to become a king.

Larry: Wouldn’t have it any other way Lou.

Lou: Now we’re talking. So there I was out on the road, wandering from failure to failure. Anyway, there I was in an orchard one day when an apple fell on my head. Scientific stimulations aside, it tasted delicious and got me thinking. By the end of the month I had signed up my first two clients, literally tempting them away from the Old Man. Their dress sense was not particularly well developed, but dramatically improved following unforeseen changes in their accommodation and food supply. An unexpected surprise was that one of their sons eventually turned out to be a major investor. Thus I learned early on that while I was not in a family business, I was in the business of families.

Larry: Now I’m guessing you are a pretty traditional guy Lou. What’s your take on all this internet technology?

Lou: Couldn’t support it more Larry. One of our big plays is to convince people that the place to be is “on top of things” rather than “at the bottom of things” – that is, to focus on the fleeting, not the foundational. It’s a win-win situation: people get to find a few cheap holidays and outsmart their doctor on something like the glycemic index, while we get mindshare that nothing is really relevant unless it arrives in your mailbox personally addressed to you as part of a competition.

Larry: Short term memory can be measured in mouse clicks.

Lou: Precisely. History becomes a hobby, not a lesson.

Larry: Speaking of history, I guess you’re going to miss Jean-Paul, like we all will.

Lou: What a guy! JP was running one of the Old Man’s biggest and largely successful subsidiaries for over a decade. Sure we locked horns often (ok, mostly my horns), but our customers expect nothing less.

Larry: And what a showman!

Lou: No arguments there Larry. The hats, flowing robes, and the palatial HQ in Rome! Got his own Swiss security team as well.

Larry: Their hats are pretty good too.

Lou: They sure are. Anyway, I repeatedly offered JP the full range of our longevity products, at a significant discount with no tangible reduction in benefits. However he always found our product line to be too costly, preferring his own stuff based on a single book with the nominal advantages of actually working and being widely available for free.

Larry: I guess that Microsoft vs. Linux debate is not really that new.

Lou: 10-4 on that one Larry. Thankfully for us JP’s organization has a spotty PR record (which we claim no small part in establishing), and can’t quite match many of our short term benefits. Also their business plan seems fatally flawed – I mean do they really expect their clients to regularly read a few hundred pages of marketing material and attend weekly meetings?

Larry: And what about the new guy?

Lou: Well, he’s a little green but don’t forget the hats and robes. I mean it’s a tall order for their board of directors to pick two winners in a row.

Larry: Not like the Old Man and his son.

Lou: Well Larry, that was a match made in heaven. The son was a real chip off the old block. He took the existing ideas, made some key modifications and then ran with them. For a few years he worked real miracles in the Middle East market, until the local racket boys nailed him.

Larry: Yes that was a bit unethical, even by local standards. I thought the Old Man might have stepped in to do some damage control.

Lou: Yes we all thought that. I gave the son a few outs myself, laid it all at his feet if he would just sign on the dotted line. He turned me down flat. I managed to nab one of his lieutenants, but he burnt out soon after.

Larry: Even so, the son’s legacy was significant by any measure.

Lou: Sure, his long term market penetration figures are impressive. His local team took the stuff global. But where’s the growth now?

Larry: Certainly nothing like your recent figures!

Lou: Well, we had a great last century - fantastic returns, unbelievable growth and great publicity. It’s one for the history books. We can’t expect compound annual growth like that to be sustained, but it was a momentous run.

Larry: Every industry has cycles, but that boom was unprecedented. Looking back, what were the conditions that made it all possible?

Lou: That’s a good question Larry. In the end it seems quite simple. A lot of our competitors believe in this “one size fits all” approach. Buy the products, go the meetings and you can look forward to a comfortable retirement.

Larry: It’s a familiar claim.

Lou: Yeah, the Old Man’s crazy about it. His marketing people must be bored to death as they have been banging on about being “the way” for years now. Our strength is that we play to your weaknesses, and to those of the people around you. No absolutes, just what you can fit into your busy day. More management by subjectives than management by objectives – just be yourself, but worse.

Larry: Let’s talk mission statements for a moment Lou. Standard fare these days.

Lou: That they are Larry, but we’ve never had to work too hard in that department. Some of our competitors are so desperate to distinguish themselves in the market that they actually write mission statements for us. Never one to turn down a few centuries of scholarship, we quickly adopted the Seven Deadly Sins (SDS) as our vision of the future (and justification of the past). I mean you can’t buy this type of PR.

Larry: Yes, I’ve heard of that 7-step program.

Lou: Some people think of it that way. We often present SDS as a program, but that’s mainly to give over-achievers a sense of advancement. Typically we are quite content with excellence at one or two of the steps, and passing familiarity with the rest.

Larry: We’re reaching the end of our time. What’s the future hold Lou?

Lou: As always Larry the future is uncertain. In the end, we’re all playing in the Old Man’s patch, and he can turn off the water works any time he wants. Shut the market down and call in a reckoning.

Larry: Why doesn’t he?

Lou: Well the Old Man’s a big believer in the market and consumer choice. He loathes interfering in daily business, which is great for the rest of us.

Larry: So business as usual then Lou?

Lou: Looks that way Larry - barring an act of God, as they say.