Leno Brought Comic Relief to a “Temporary Willmington Condition”

Leno brings comic relief: “5/11/2009 10:15:00 AM
Willmington News Journal, Willmington, Ohio
Jay Leno, center, held a meet-and-greet Sunday prior to the evening show. Here he was joined by two Wilmingtonians, Mark Rembert (left) and Taylor Stuckert, who are leading the Energize Clinton County initiative as well as contributing in other ways to the effort to alleviate the economic hardships in the area, where Clinton County has a 12.5 percent unemployment rate and Highland County a 14.5 percent jobless rate, according to the most recent data. (News Journal Photo/Gary Huffenberger)

I’m an uncomfortable flier even in the best conditions, which is why I’ll never forget my first flight to Wilmington (OH) in the jump seat of an Airborne Express YS-11, situated between an open toilet and containers of packages and envelopes. I was a raw entry-level sales rep for a company that had either the (a) nerve, (b) desperation, (c) vision, (d) stupidity to transform itself from a traditional variable cost air freight forwarder to an integrated fixed cost carrier in an era of double-digit inflation and interest rates.

I remember boarding the pride of Airborne’s fleet back then—a World War II vintage turbo that served all of metro NY—and looking across Newark Airport’s tarmac at Federal Express’, Emery Air Freight’s, Purolator Courier’s fancy fleets of jets feeling a bit envious but mostly nasty angry. We were a nobody company daring to compete with well entrenched extremely well run and respected businesses. Within 5 years of that flight on a rickety YS-11 Airborne was not only much larger than Emery and Purolator, we had become the clear cut 3rd largest industry player to FedEx and UPS.

From the senior executives in Airborne’s Seattle headquarters to the part-time package sorters in Wilmington, we had a warrior culture of energized and aligned people committed to winning. Especially by comparison to the others, our lack of resources became the point of competitive pride and spirit; buttons senior management always knew how to press.

Though there are many examples, another Airborne moment seared into my memory is an afternoon I spent taking the company President & COO—Bob Brazier—to client and prospect meetings when I was managing the Chicago office. We had done extremely well in Chicago, I had the privilege of working with a team of exceptional professionals, and as we passed all the Airborne customer buildings I made sure to point that fact out to Brazier. After about 10 minutes of this, and I must say it was impressive because we were in very fertile Airborne territory, Bob deadpanned “yeah Mike, you really brought Federal to their knees, I hear they’re about to close up in the Midwest, maybe nationally.”

No matter how far we might have come from a single YS-11 serving the tri-state NY area the culture would never allow for celebration because that would naturally lead to complacency and then disaster. Though there are many clichés that get under my skin, none is more bothersome than “to make money you gotta spend money”. I grew up at Airborne from an entry level sales rep to a senior manager, and in the roughly 15 years spending money was taboo. Yet we outgrew the competition and made money. Sure, our lack of marketing to rival FedEx or UPS was also a cause for envy, but it further stoked our competitive nasty angry attitude.

In 2003 DHL acquired Airborne promising to take the company to the next level by spending money to make money. Though I had left Airborne a few years prior I kept in close contact and everyone was excited about “DHL and their deep pockets”, relieved that the intense never satisfied Airborne management style would be replaced by a kinder and gentler DHL.. Among the many things I learned at Airborne was “to make money you gotta have aligned management building a purposeful culture with universal understanding of what the mission is”. All DHL’s investment in Airborne could never make up for the culture that eroded over the past half decade or so.

Jay Leno is incorrect when he says, “’these are pretty resilient people’”…no, these are Airborne people and they are the toughest and most resilient people I know. To those who lived it and know… the saddest thing is: “Leno Brings Comic Relief” to Wilmington Ohio. Yet those of us who lived it and know it have the true confidence that “all of this” should and will be a painful, but temporary condition.

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