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International Perspectives - Part I By Richard Hadden
June 2005

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In this issue...
  • International Perspectives - Part I
  • Hear it straight from the cow's - er - horse's mouth
  • Dinged Up Paperbacks Available at Big Savings

  • International Perspectives - Part I

    By Richard Hadden

    You'll forgive me if this month's Fresh Milk seems to read with a slight accent. I'm writing it from my Scottish brother-in-law's home in the English village of Rolvenden Layne, an hour south of London, having spent nearly three weeks (glorious weeks, I might add) in Scotland and England, with a wee side trip to Germany. Other than checking email most every day (a daunting task in the Scottish Highlands), just about the only "work" I've done on this vacation has been to make some observations, a few of which I'd like to share here.

    As a Scot-by-marriage, I've been visiting the UK fairly regularly for nearly twenty years. But this time, before boarding Virgin Atlantic's flight 50 from Orlando to Gatwick, I firmly implanted in my mind this question, "When it comes to the workplace, and leadership, and their impact on business, does the 'people thing' work any differently in, say, the UK than in the more familiar (to me) territory of North America?"

    I flew three airlines on the trip. Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic for the transatlantic legs; budget carrier easy Jet between London and Edinburgh; and Ireland-based RyanAir between Scotland and Germany.

    Virgin has a reputation for being not only good to its customers, but to its employees as well. IRS take note - I did some bona fide research on the trip, asking two of the Virgin Atlantic flight attendants what they thought about the "deal" working for Virgin. I think I've been doing this long enough to know when I'm getting a "line", and when the enthusiasm is genuine. This was the real thing.

    "I've never worked for a firm where I've been treated so professionally," said Dalton, mid-20's, looked like he stepped off a London fashion billboard. "There's a definite sense of pride working for Virgin. They treat us with a certain amount of 'polish', I'd say, and I think that rubs off on our customers. Or at least I hope it does."

    I assured him it did.

    Marlene, an attractive Jamaican, echoed Dalton's thoughts (in a much cooler accent, though). "I used to work for another airline. The difference is like night and day. This is like my dream job."

    It's impossible to know which came first (as in chicken or egg), but Virgin reported last fiscal year's pre-tax profits of 68 million ($123 million), the highest since 1999. I'm not saying there's a connection, but. . . Despite rising fuel costs, Virgin has managed to do something no full-fare American carrier has pulled off since the years started with a 2. And as a result of Virgin's continued successful performance, its workforce will get a profit-related bonus for the third year in a row.

    My experience on easy Jet was different. This carrier has been compared to the US's Southwest Airlines. Cheap fares, open seating, no frills. But the comparison falls apart, at least in my very limited experience, when you factor in the respective airlines' employees. I've seen undertakers who were having more fun at work than the easy Jetters I encountered. (Please - no angry emails from funeral professionals. It was a joke.) When I raised an objection (in the politest of tones - really) to a gate agent about what I saw as a minor service failure, the agent retorted, "Well you don't need to fly easy Jet, then, do you?"

    I guess he put me in my place - Ugly American that I am. But I couldn't let it go. I asked him, "Do you like your job?", he paused, and actually reflected for a moment, putting a great deal more thought into his response than into the snort that gave rise to the question, saying, "Not particularly."

    In the six months ending March 31, 2005, easy Jet lost 31 million ($56 million). I'm not saying there's a connection, but. . .

    Then, in stark contrast to easy Jet, the RyanAir staff were all smiles. For the same cheap fare, they got me from Glasgow, Scotland (well, Prestwick, really, about an hour away) to Dusseldorf, Germany (well, Weeze, really, about an hour away) cheaply, safely, and with the greatest professionalism, joy, and mirth.

    It won't surprise you, and it didn't surprise me, that RyanAir earned 273 million Euros ($331 million) last year. I'm not saying there's a connection, but. . .

    While I will make all the disclaimers you would expect with respect to cause and effect, it's hard not to notice that, at least in my limited experience, the two companies that treated me well and seem to have happy employees also have happy shareholders. The other one isn't making anyone happy at the moment. Interestingly, easy Jet's CEO, Ray Webster, just announced his departure, so he can spend more time with his family (where have we heard that one before?) And who can blame him? I don't know Mr. Webster's family, but they'd have to be a jollier lot than his employees.

    But perhaps the clearest answer to my original question came at a fish and chip carry-out in a stout working-class neighborhood in Glasgow. A Glasgow "chippie" is as colorful as a New York deli, and this one lived up to the reputation of the genre.

    Apparently the shop had just finished serving a healthy rush of customers, when we walked in a half- hour before its midnight closing time. (Bill can't believe that I postponed dinner until 11:30, but I did. Long story.) We ordered four "fish suppers", all of which were prepared fresh. While we waited, I chatted with the shop manager, Archie, a young, but well-worn strawberry blond Glaswegian man whose "patter" (the distinctive Glasgow dialect) would have been only slightly more intelligible had he still had his full issue of teeth. Only because my wife has tutored me in the language over the last twenty years was I able to carry on a conversation with him at all.

    Without making any mention of what I do for a living, I simply asked Archie if they'd been having a busy night. "Aye, no hauf!" he allowed, which I knew meant, "Yes, indeed, and not just halfway." He went on to volunteer, "See these lassies?" referring to the two young women who were busily frying the potatoes and haddock, and making preparations to close the kitchen for the night. "Wee Fiona was supposed to leave at half-past-nine, (I'm translating here), "but we got so busy she volunteered to stay until closing. We couldn't have done without her."

    My mind immediately turned to the idea of Discretionary Effort, and I went into consulting mode, asking why, in Archie's opinion, Fiona had taken the initiative to stay to help. Working in a Glasgow chippie is hot, hard, greasy work, a job which an eighteen-year-old woman would be happy to leave at 9:30 on a Saturday night.

    "Oh, we try to take pretty good care of each other around here. You don't find many people want to work in a chippie these days. See the likes of yon golden arches over there?" he said pointing to the famous icon across the street. The kids today would rather work there. I guess it's easier, and more 'glamorous'," he said, using those annoying finger quotes he must have learned from watching American TV. "Me? I tell 'em they'll have a better time working for the 'Golden Archie'," he laughed, pointing to both his hair and his name tag.

    "Och, I've worked at those places," said Fiona. "It's no' the same. Here we all pitch in and help each other. I don't mind staying, 'cause I know these two would do the same for me. And they have."

    With that, I had my fish and chips, and the answer to my question. Whether on this side of the pond or the other, people want to be respected, treated like professionals, to have some fun at work, and know that somebody cares about them and will help them out when they need it. With those needs met, and maybe a few others, good people will pitch in, do good work, and bring in the earnings for their owners.

    It doesn't get much simpler than that.


    Hear it straight from the cow's - er - horse's mouth

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