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An Open Letter to CEOs in Rural Locations

We thought many of you, who have chosen to locate in rural areas, as we have in Madison, VA, would enjoy this posting by our good friend Bill LaPierre. It happens to focus on the catalog industry, but the principles apply to any business and any industry.

An Open Letter to Catalog CEOs in Rural Locations

In doing my research for the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the history of catalogs for the National Postal Museum, (to read my previous posting on this topic click here), I noticed a common thread among many companies that were started and grew during the post-World War II era into the 1970s. For a variety of different reasons, many of these catalog companies chose to locate in small rural locations.

This makes perfect sense. By their very nature, catalog companies do not need to be near large population centers to drive sales. Catalogs drive business remotely, so can locate where they want.

A large majority of catalog entrepreneurs chose to locate their catalogs in “the country.” This was especially true here in New England, with Orvis, Vermont Country Store, Garnet Hill, Littleton Coin, Keepsake Quilting, Brookstone, Country Curtains, LL Bean and many more smaller companies starting in small towns. Even in more recent times, companies such as the original Coldwater Creek chose to locate in rural Idaho in 1983.

In reading the histories of these companies, very few of them intended or expected to grow to the size they are today. In most cases, the founding entrepreneur chose where to live first based on a preference to live in a quiet, bucolic setting, and then had to find a business opportunity that supported their desire to live in the country. Lands’ End is one of the few examples of a catalog that started in an urban location (Chicago) and moved to a rural location (Dodgeville, WI).

Many of my clients have been in rural locations. In addition to all those previously mentioned, which are clients now or were at one time, I’ve worked with Park Seed (Greenwood, SC), Mason Shoe (Chippewa Falls, WI) and Duluth Trading (Belleville, WI). Even many of Datamann’s UK catalog clients are located in small towns (at least they are less than 75,000 and feel to me like a small English town), including Bingley, Harrogate and Skelmersdale. They certainly are not London. Datamann itself is located in a small Vermont village of 1,600 people.

Except for when I was in college, I have always lived in small towns of less than 5,000 people, and so has my wife. If you have never experienced small town living, it is difficult to appreciate the “closeness.” We currently live in a town of 1,200 people, and because our son went through our public school system, and my wife sings in the church choir, we know about half the people in town. The other half we at least recognize when we see them at the “dump/recycling center” on Saturday morning. (Our town has no trash removal service – you have to bring it to what we still call the “dump” once a week). Suffice it to say, that in a small town, especially one with limited services, you depend on each other more so than our urban neighbors.

I have noticed that catalog companies located in rural areas have a similar sense of internal community as well. This is no illusion. The clients that I have worked with located in urban areas hit the road at 5 PM, and think little of their co-workers until 8 AM the next morning. There is nothing wrong with this, but in a small town, you see your co-workers at your kid’s school, in church, at the store, etc. Some of you would be “freaked out” by that thought. But when you have lived it all your life, you can’t imagine not having that connection.

Prior to moving to New Hampshire in the late 1980s to work at Brookstone, I lived in a small town, but worked at several mail order companies in the suburbs of Boston. There was little sense of closeness, nor a sense of comradery, at least to the degree I have found at companies in rural locations.

In the late 1980s, Brookstone was very closely associated with Peterborough, NH (population 5,000). It was the town’s second largest employer. The CEOs and many in upper management were involved in the community. You sensed it in the company, too. We fielded several teams in local sports leagues. We had company outings. As the company grew, the town and the surrounding communities grew along with it.
Then we hired a new CEO, and the “culture” changed.

This new CEO was a great retailer from whom I learned a great deal about merchandising, margin, and business. He lived in Boston, and he never embraced Peterborough. He never had any intention of moving there. Shortly after his joining the company, the decision was made to break up the headquarters, moving all of fulfillment to Missouri (our mail order fulfillment had located there five years before, but now retail fulfillment was going as well) and the administrative offices were moving 40 miles east.

The reason given was that it would be easier to recruit professional staff if we were closer to Boston, and we were paying our fulfillment staff a premium wage because so many of them had been with the company so long. Hiring new staff in Missouri would eliminate that problem as they would be at a lower pay scale.
You can imagine this did not sit well with the staff who were losing their jobs, or with those keeping their jobs but now facing a long commute. I made the long commute (a little more than an hour each way) for two years before I tired of it found alternate employment, ironically back in Peterborough across the street from the old Brookstone building which sat empty for years.

At the time of the move, the hourly employees that were “let go” represented almost 400 years of accumulated customer service to Brookstone. No value was assigned to that by management. It was simply assumed that the new hires in Missouri could be trained in a matter of weeks and not miss a beat. But of course, that did not happen. Nothing went right in the move to Missouri. It took almost three years (and several new directors at the DC) to get things running smoothly. At the new headquarters, the quaint sense of community was gone. The old company trophy case filled with mementos of past company-team athletic glories is now a bookcase in my office at home. It was a huge price to pay for the personal convenience of a few.

I bring all this up because as I work on telling the history of catalogs and mail order for the Smithsonian, I realize that a special thanks needs to be extended to the CEOs – past and present – who have maintained their respective company’s presence in these rural locations. They have not been swayed by the argument that it would be easier to recruit new talent in more urban locations – they’ve done just fine staying where they are and finding the people for whom the existing company culture resonates. They also recognized that their current location was a large part of their culture, their brand and their merchandise, and that a departure from that community would destroy it all. They also (for the most part) have not been swayed by the argument that locating elsewhere would reduce operating expense. They recognized the long term value of years of accumulated customer service experience outweigh the short term gain of a few dollars per hour wage reduction.

More importantly, they have made a commitment to their community. When Brookstone left Peterborough, it left a huge hole in the community, which is still a void 22 years later. I also believe it was the beginning of the long road of poor performance at Brookstone which culminated in their bankruptcy in 2014. I have written in this space before that the strength of some of the major and most venerable catalog companies lies with the fact that they are still owned by the original founders or founders’ family, such as LL Bean, Country Curtains, Duncraft, Littleton Coin. But, don’t overlook the fact that these companies have also long resided and long supported their local communities. This is part of the heritage of our catalog industry. This will be part of the catalog history and story I tell with the exhibit at the Smithsonian.

by Bill LaPierre
VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics
Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235
blapierre@datamann.com

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