The Empty Suit

Andrew was sharing with us the secrets of his success. Devoid of scruples, unrepentant, and unaware of the impression he was creating, Andrew shared with us stories of strong-arming customers, breaking rules, and pushing out employees who wouldn’t play his games. He is invincible. He is the future of retail.

If ignorance truly is bliss, then I was sitting two seats away from the happiest guy in Beachwood.

My father was a retail jeweler. He served as a store manager and supervisor most of his adult life. I grew up in those stores. I witnessed his professionalism. He respected his customers and they loved him. They trusted “Mr. Jerry” to take care of their jewelry needs. I have carried the lessons I learned from watching him throughout my working life.

My father wouldn’t be hired in today’s retail environment. Neither would I.

Walking through the mall is like visiting a carnival. Unwilling to wait for customers to enter the store or express interest, the sales clerks are forced to stand on the lease-line, barker style, and intercept mall patrons. The guys at the cell phone kiosks beg to ask you a question. Dodge them and you may bump into the sample girls from the skin product stand. And the chain stores will have their people do anything for another credit application.

This unpleasantness is available at any mall. Even these deserts of rudeness have an oasis or two. Beachwood Place has a Nordstrom. It is possible to find a positive, motivated salesperson at Saks, Dillard’s, or even at one of the kiosks, but the shopping experience is consistently excellent on all three floors of my favorite store.

Andrew is not a future Nordstrom store manager, but that’s not his goal. He has no need to leave his current employer, yet. For now he is satisfied with being transferred from an irrelevant C level strip plaza to a B level mall. The big time, a major mall store, is in his sights. He is indistinguishable from a pack of twenty-five to thirty-five year old single males who manage the stores of his employer and main competitors. Equally forgettable. Equally replaceable. Sometimes you have to look twice to determine which is which.

Having an audience, especially one that didn’t punch in first, thrilled Andrew and he made the most of his opportunity. His embellishments became more apparent the longer he spoke. Though we felt badly for his customers, our real concern was reserved for his employees who desperately need their jobs.

And one day Andrew will be gone, replaced by another empty suit.

The Diluted Talent Pool

The Beachwood Council chambers were packed. The citizenry up in arms. Having squandered millions of dollars, the Mayor and Council had decided to raise the income tax. It was a small increase, just 33%. Our incomes, more importantly the incomes of people who work here in Beachwood but live and vote elsewhere, would be taxed at 2% instead of the current 1 ½ %. But that wasn’t why we had the flash crowd.

In an effort to intimidate the population and force his tax increase, the Mayor decided to close the pool 15 days early. Council, of course, fell in line. The Beachwood Family Aquatic Center, the gem of our little town, turned out to be very important to a diverse group of citizens. We had elderly lap swimmers and parents of small children. We had individuals who were recovering from major illnesses. There were fitness buffs and the occasional waders. All of these people had two things in common. They were all smart enough to know that the city was only saving a grand total of $30,000 by closing the pool. And, they were not going to be bullied.

Baseball fanatics often refer to the diluted talent pool. There was a time, not so long ago, when there were significantly fewer major league teams. The pitchers that made it to the Show were the best of the best. The minor leagues were brimming with talented players trying to break through. Today, with so many roster spots on so many teams, the talent pool is diluted. Many teams, including our Cleveland Indians, are stocked with minor leaguers. They may be nice people. They may be good players. But, there is very little we can identify as great.

I am reminded of major league baseball’s problems every time I look at city government in Cuyahoga County. By having over 50 separate municipalities in this county, we have diluted the talent pool. And like baseball, attendance is down while salaries have escalated.

Beachwood exemplifies this problem. We have very little city leadership. Instead, we have managers, people who have managed to hold on to their piece of the pie long after their skills and interest have diminished. Our elections are seldom contested. There isn’t enough talent to fill all of our slots. Thus, some of our elected officials, like the power pitcher past his prime with a fastball now in the high 80’s, have little left to offer. And like the Indians current third baseman, some of our leaders are just small market kind of guys.

Last Monday the citizens witnessed the Mayor and Council back down. The pool will stay open, but the hastily cancelled community programs like Family Fun Day will not reappear. We were told that four union contracts will be up for negotiation in November. The Mayor and Council elaborated on the fierceness of the unions. They shared with us their fear. Fear. While cities around us have pushed for layoffs and give-backs, Beachwood is still hiring and wages are still going up.

Beachwood was among the leaders in economic development and outreach. But again, the talent pool is diluted. A couple of months ago we sent a Councilman to a biomedical conference in Israel to convince entrepreneurs to move to Beachwood. This is innovative and important. I have been involved in the past. But an attorney who won’t move his practice from a neighboring suburb to Beachwood is hardly the guy to convince someone to move across seven time zones.

(In the interest of full disclosure, the Beachwood Chamber of Commerce is a volunteer driven organization and I served two terms as the President from 4/1/2008 to 4/1/2010. The city contracted with the chamber to do economic development. I represented Beachwood twice in Israel, once on the chamber’s dime and once I paid all of my expenses.)

We are about to embark on a grand experiment in Cuyahoga County. The new County Council and County Executive could be the first steps to a more logical and efficient government. As our population and resources shrink, it is vitally important that we find the best people, regardless of party affiliation, to fill these positions. This may be our last chance to truly be major league.