Saturday, February 23, 2013

J. Harvey Howells, The Big Company Look


Opening Passage:

Jackson Pollett came out of the employees' entrance of the supermarket, walked past hte platforms where two stock boys were unloading crates fo vegetables form a giant truck, and strode across the parking lot. The initals on his sample case matched the iniitals ont he door of the car toward which he was headed--U.S.G.C. in yellow on a red diamond. These letters represented the "United States Grocery Company--Food Locker of the Nation"; 20,000 employees; gross sales in 1941, $229,000,000; net profit after taxes, $16,000,000; annual dividend, $4.30 (up 35¢ over 1940).

Summary: Almost everyone has seen the Company look at one time or another. It's the bland, lofty, distant, officious look people get when they call you in to fire you or lay you off or reprimand you. It's the look that says, "It's nothing personal, just business. We have to think of the good of the Company." It may actually be personal, or not. It may be that the good of the company has nothing to do with it, or that it has everything to do with it. The Company look is not itself a look of sincerity or honesty; motivations are irrelevant to it. The Company look is the look of someone who is handing you bad consequences from an impregnable position, themselves immune, at the moment, at least, to anyone doing the same to them.

Jackson Pollett is an ambitious, highly driven golden boy trying to make it in marketing in the rising age of advertisement. He has intelligence, will, good looks, and charm. And he's willing to do what it takes. We see this early on, when Pollett, in training and secretly alerted by a secretary that his higher-up will be coming along with him to see how he is doing, sets up what is known as a "milk run" -- he simply erases the previous day's sales and gets the supermarkets and grocery stores to pretend they haven't already bought the things that they already have, so that Pollett's supervisor can see him sell. The whole reason why the supervision run had been kept secret even to Pollett himself was to prevent precisely this kind of thing. But he does it, and is successful with it -- the grocery store and supermarket owners not only have no problem with it, they buy even more and give him special display space just to 'stick it to the brass'.

It's a subtle thing, but it's worth stopping a moment to think about the situation. Successful dishonesty doesn't tend to be found out. Given how easy it is for Pollett to set up the milk run, it seems that you would only get caught if you were stupid or extremely unlucky. And yet getting caught is common enough that there is a well-known term for the particular kind of dishonesty involved, and company policies to prevent it. It must happen a lot. We see throughout these subtle indications that dishonesty or at least not-quite-complete-honesty is everywhere.

Howells also shows the inevitable result of this: the perpetual corrosion of loyalty. In principle sales and marketing are all about loyalty: loyalty of employees to the Company, loyalty of customers to the brand. But the former easily slides into the Company look, a mask that can hide any motivation, and the latter easily becomes nothing more than a way to make money. Real loyalty cannot survive in a climate that depends entirely on appearance and timing. The novel's timespan is from about 1941 to 1957, so it includes the World War and the Korean War. Jackson, from his perspective, lucks out with the former, since after working to get an exemption and failing, he gets a 4-F rating on a technicality, and therefore is able to spend the war years ascending the ladder of business while most of his competition is off risking their lives. His attitude in this regard is contrasted with that of Dick Wainwright, his childhood friend, who actually volunteers, and who assumes that Pollett wasn't trying to get out of service because he can't imagine anyone being that unpatriotic. But Dick is really loyal -- there are times in the novel when his loyalty reaches the point of being ridiculous. Pollett is not, and it's a Jackson Pollett world. When the War ends he is perfectly situated to take advantage of the post-war relief of the late forties and early fifties, in which people, tired of rationing, fighting, sacrificing, allow themselves to play and indulge; it was the perfect time to be up-and-coming in marketing. World War II, the Korean War: they mostly affect Pollett's life as business opportunities. There's some stumbling along the way, most due to jealousies and petty rivalries (one of the interesting constants through the novel is that when people insist that it's only business, it's guaranteed to be partly personal). Nonetheless, he manages to overcome each one, in one case leveraging being fired into getting a better job at another company. He can do it because he has no loyalty.

This is not a comeuppance novel. Given how swiftly Pollett's star rises, I don't think it gives away anything to say that he is eventually outmaneuvered by someone who can play the game even better than he can, at precisely the moment he thought he would have complete success. But he never gets what's coming to him; he never really has to pay for what's coming. The Jackson Polletts of the world, who aren't evil people, who are even quite decent in some ways, are dishonest, disloyal, and hypocritical, because the world doesn't actually punish people for these things, and may even reward them, if they are done in just the right way. We might not even notice the dishonesty, disloyalty, or hypocrisy; that would require digging into the personal, and because the personal is not business, it's not our business. Of course Jackson Pollett lives his life with a mask. We expect the Jackson Polletts to wear that mask. That's the Company look.

Favorite Passage:

The old man's eyes narrowed, and he reached int the paper bag. He pulled out a package of P. F. Gingerbread Mix. With a big hand he tore the top off the package and poured the dry powder in a mound on the table. "You think this is gingerbread mix?" he asked coyly, head on one side. He slapped the table, and the water glasses jumped. "It's not! It's pap! Tasteless pap!"

"Market research showed we could reduce the spice content," said Gregory, Ph.D., nervously defensive. "The average consumer can't detect the flavor difference, and we saved twelve cents a case---"

"The average consumer can't detect the difference," Crowther mimicked with heavy sarcasm and exploded. "Yer a goddam fool! What d'you know aobut food? You think you know mor'n I do? You send yer silly women around four hundred doors askin' questions. Then you feed the answers they give you into a stinkin' codin' machine that tells you sixty per cent o' the people think the product's all right. You forget the other forty per cent. You know the product's pap. You wouldn't eat it yerself, but you think you can sell it---"

Recommendation: More interesting than I thought it would be. You probably can do without it, but if you like novels about business, you might want to see if you can find it. The overall story is somewhat basic, but many of the smaller stories are truly interesting.

1 comment:

  1. MrsDarwin3:23 PM

    It's unlikely I'll ever pick up The Big Company Look, but I must say your last paragraph is a fine bit of prose.


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