Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What can I put in all those pockets?

By Dick Hirsch
I bought a new winter jacket and I spent the first two months discovering where all the pockets are located. With spring approaching, I can now report that I just found the twelfth pocket.

Don’t misunderstand: I like the jacket. It’s warm yet light in weight, and it isn’t puffy like so many jackets that make the wearer resemble the Pillsbury Doughboy. It also is a great color, a kind of coffee shade, not black coffee, but coffee with a touch of cream. And it has one of those hidden hoods. As I hope you can tell, I’m very enthusiastic about the jacket.

Oh, and one other important point: it was on the sale rack, along with others of the same model in every size. In the old days, winter jackets never went on sale as early as this. I actually bought it in late December, after Christmas. I am embarrassed to tell you what the price on the tag said and how far down it was marked for sale. Yes, I realize that many mainstream merchants rely on “On Sale” as a marketing strategy and that some ticket prices may be artificially inflated so they can be sharply reduced and still enable the manufacturer and the retailer to make a decent profit. With the troubled economy buyers needed encouragement and incentives to spend money. Since retailers were struggling to avoid red ink, there were some major opportunities for shoppers. Price-cutting prevailed.

When I bought the jacket, which is hip length, I was so delighted with the price I didn’t pay much attention to the number of pockets. During my youth, a jacket of this type would have two slash pockets, strategically located, so the wearer could easily warm his or her hands inside, or tuck gloves there when not in use. Two pockets must have been deemed sufficient, because that was the number the fashion designers were planning and the manufacturers were cutting.

After I arrived home with my purchase, I immediately noticed that the jacket, in addition to a pair of flap pockets on either side at waist level, the jacket had two smaller flap pockets, one on each side at chest level. The flaps and the snaps on all the pockets were attractive and appeared to be durable. I spent several days considering what possible use I could make out of the two smaller pockets. What were they designed for, I wondered.

I eventually concluded that they were designed for panache, to add some oomph, some zest, some style. They were not designed to hold anything, but to create what we fashionistas call “a look.” I accepted that finding with equanimity.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t until about three weeks later that I noticed that in addition to the four pockets already discussed, the jacket also had two slash pockets, in the usual position, one on each side. That brought the total number of exterior visible pockets to six and it meant the wearer had a variety of acceptable options for stowing and hand-warming.

It was at that point my attention shifted to China. My jacket, while designed in the USA, like many of its cousins and more distant relatives, was made in China. I have no problem with that. It is preferable to buy domestically made garments, but that has become exceedingly difficult.

I began to wonder what the workers in the Chinese factory where the jacket was made were thinking as they sewed. Were they at all curious about why Americans require so many pockets? Did they wonder what valuables Americans must have to store in so many places? We have bad reputations in so many places around the world, I wondered whether we were making things worse by designing and selling jackets with a profusion of pockets. I feel certain that the average Chinese, even those of great wealth, don’t have nearly as many.

That reverie transpired before I launched a really serious examination of the innards of the jacket. There I found six more pockets, secreted here and there, some with snaps and some with zippers, some inside the jacket, some inside the jacket’s inner lining. Those six brought the total number of pockets to twelve. Is it possible there are still others I haven’t yet discovered? I was amazed at the result, but chagrined to realize that I’ll never be able to fill them. Based on my history with jackets, I suppose I’m essentially a two pocket guy.


Saturday, March 07, 2009

The bean counters among us

By Dick Hirsch

When I first joined the company and met Sweeney, I was impressed. He had an office with a view and signed his letters as “Controller.” Sweeney seemed to be an agreeable guy in most situations, especially on our Tuesday bowling nights or whenever we happened to meet at the neighborhood hardware store on weekends.

Soon after his situation changed. He wasn’t exactly promoted, because his role was essentially the same but his title had evolved and he became “Treasurer.“ I never knew whether the new designation brought him a salary increase, but he seemed happy in his role. He was a busy man, obviously dedicated to his work, and in relatively quick succession he rose through the corporate ranks, first being elevated to “Chief Financial Officer” and eventually becoming “Senior Vice President of Finance & Administration.”

I was young and innocent, unfamiliar with the world of business. I soon began to hear whispers about Sweeney, references that were degrading and derogatory. The allegation was that he was a bean counter. I had never heard the term, but its meaning was obvious. You’re surely aware of the designation, referring to men and women whose role in a business is to handle the money, monitor the accounts, and keep a very watchful eye on those other executives who in one way or another were involved in sales and marketing or manufacturing. As I observed Sweeney over those first months I was on the job, I realized he was the prototypical bean counter. Over several years I came to realize that although we both had the same goal---to make the company profitable---we had opposing strategies.

He was anxious to cut costs. Those in sales and manufacturing wanted to expand, to develop new product lines, seek new contracts, and buy new equipment that would enable us to be more productive. We might be willing to negotiate a lower price in order to obtain a sizable order or develop a new customer; Sweeney believed such an approach reflected weakness and poor salesmanship.

If you have been around long enough, you have encountered individuals like Sweeney. They are firm in their belief that they know how best to navigate the road to success.

They are bean counters. They are not born that way, but, somewhere along the way as they mature, they develop a fascination with numbers and a preference for black ink over red ink. Those on the other side have the same ink preference, but an approach that emphasizes words like selling, volume, customer service and quality manufacturing. That difference of philosophy often creates conflict between bean counters and their colleagues.

Over the years I’ve learned that in some venues the term bean counter is not considered negative; rather it can be an accolade directed toward a person who is determined to demonstrate the importance of close attention to spending. They claim any successful business needs to try to reduce costs no matter how low they may appear.

Incidentally, the description of bean counter is often used interchangeably with the term number cruncher, but business semanticists insist the words are not synonymous. Number crunching is more of an assignment than a philosophy. Number crunchers often work under the direction of bean counters, with the bean counters establishing policy and the number crunchers carrying out that policy.

As you can tell, I’ve never been a bean counter, and in my career have often found myself in conflict with them. But, in fairness to all, I felt I should try a little bean counting of my own as part of the research for this story.

Any serious research effort requires a historical review designed to reveal any relevant aspects of the researcher’s background that might result in bias. Thus, I admit I grew up believing there were only three types of beans: green, yellow and the kind Heinz baked and packed in cans. Maturity broadened my vision, and the other day I started my first serious bean counting, beginning at the top of a formidable list with three beans I never heard of: azuki, anasazi and appaloosa. It was a daunting task as I counted and counted, and quit at 49 bean varieties, after going just halfway through the alphabet, ending my counting with mung. I never even got to navy, pinto or soy. It proved, if there was ever a doubt, that I don’t have the personality of a bean counter.