Re-Engineered to Smithereens – Art’s Story

August 18, 2009

by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

Once upon a time, when Baby Boomers ventured into the business world, those who could manage operations were Kings. But the ascendancy of financial re-engineering changed all that. Along with product lines and business units, even the most talented individuals turned into Pawns – and thereby became expendable.

Let’s be frank right off the bat. My friend Art has had a career many might envy. Affable, talented, with a razor-sharp intellect, he once managed operations worth over a billion in today’s dollars and earned the respect of employees and customers alike.

But now, at age 59, Art fully admits his career’s at a temporary dead end. And he’s as dismayed and frustrated about it as those at lower rungs of the corporate ladder.

“Yes, we have some savings,” he says. “We don’t have kids in college, and we weren’t heavily involved in the stock market. But like so many other Boomers, I’m finding it hard to get a job now, even worthwhile consulting jobs.”

Art’s wife Susan, 57, has been able to find an accounting position in Nashville, where the couple lives. But she’s no longer a department head, as she once was. And Art has so far shied away from using his savings to launch an ambitious venture of his own. “I don’t know if I have the requisite ‘fire in the belly’ to be a committed lone wolf entrepreneur,” he tells me. “I’d really like to get back to what I do well, which is managing a major operation.”

How did a lauded executive with 30-odd years of top-level managerial experience end up grossly underemployed years before retirement age? Like so many Boomers, Art has essentially been the victim of “financial re-engineering,” that all-purpose grab bag term which has come to mean the perpetual rejiggering of a company’s products, properties, divisions, and all-too-often people, in order to squeeze the greatest possible financial returns out of a firm’s designated assets.

Art’s field is healthcare. But virtually every sector of the US economy has been affected by the spectre of financial re-engineering the past few decades. Old concepts of corporate integrity, mission, and loyalty to employees have flown out the window, say critics, to be replaced by an environment where short-term advantage has supplanted long-term goals and the Main Chance is the only chance that counts.

Here Today, Who Knows Where Tomorrow

“It was different when I started out,” says Art, with more than a tinge of nostalgia. Born and raised in a small town in the South, he comes from a mini-dynasty of rural physicians. His dad, granddad, and two great uncles were all country doctors, and his mother trained as a nurse.

But Art got a business degree from West Virginia University and started out in the audit division of a Big Eight accounting firm in Norfolk. Ironically, he ended up in healthcare, like his family, by doing such a good job for clients in that sector, a regional senior living chain recruited him.

So began 32 years working for six different companies in the healthcare sector, some of which seemed to be periodically chopped up, patched together, switched around, and swapped shamelessly like trading cards.

The first company Art worked for was purchased by a much larger competitor five years into his tenure. That worked out well for Art, who eventually became a divisional president, with responsibility for over 250 separate healthcare facilities. But when this company, too, was “re-engineered” by asset shufflers, his position disappeared, and he went to work for a smaller outfit, itself in the midst of a realignment of product and service lines, as well as one of the first “securitizations” of healthcare real estate assets.

Through these moves and re-positionings, Art observed major changes in basic corporate attitudes. “When I started working,” he observes, “competent, ambitious managers strove to prove their worth in line positions, overseeing operations, products, and people. Staff people were in the background, while those in line operations held sway.”

But by the 1980’s, things began to change rapidly. Financial re-engineering became all the rage, and operating executives took a back seat to a new crop of would-be “dealmakers,” whose main objective seemed to be shifting assets – and people – around for the quickest possible return.

Art was only in his 30’s then, but he remembers old timers’ resentment of a seemingly endless stream of newly-minted finance MBA’s, who swooped into corporate offices with confidence verging on conceit, convinced that they had reinvented the wheel and that those who failed to concentrate on immediate “optimization” of results were hopelessly behind the times.

“I guess these fellas are all over 40 now,” laughs Art. “But back then, they seemed very young and very zealous. Meanwhile, operations began to suffer, because the Best and the Brightest no longer wanted to spend their careers actually managing things, instead of shuffling assets and doing deals.”

At the turn of the Millennium, Art was recruited as a senior executive of a start-up company which was expected to evolve into a major player in assisted-living, home healthcare, and private caregiver services. Here, he experienced the fickleness of financiers and Wall Street’s frenzied chase for the financial fad of the moment.

“Our president and founder, a respected physician, had lined up what seemed to be very solid financing from a flamboyant venture capitalist,” Art relates. “We were promised substantial financial backing for several years, enough to provide a platform for sustained growth.”

But the superstar financier pulled out at the last moment, leaving the new company essentially high and dry. “It was those heady years of the Dot.Com Boom,” Art says, “and the financier decided healthcare wasn’t Boom-y enough. He abandoned us for some West Coast computer start-ups, telling us he could make incredible returns there – I think the figure was 30 percent a year. And No, I’m not sure what happened to him.”

What happened to Art was major disillusionment. The start-up couldn’t make it, and a subsequent short stint at another healthcare company also disappointed, as it, too, went through “re-engineering” and changed its focus. About two years ago, Art went out on his own, but he hasn’t enjoyed it much and would like to be part of a corporate team again, if the possibility presents itself.

“I’ll bounce back, and so will the Boomer generation,” he says confidently. “It’s good so many of us are angry. We’ll move through the anger and shake things up, as we always have.”

One thing that sorely needs shaking up, Art believes, is companies’ recent reliance on short-term financial gains at the expense of long-term prosperity, for themselves and their employees. “A company is only as good as its managers and its workers,” he says. “The entire corporate world has to get back to basics. And the root of those basics is operations.”

What Do You Think?

Have you or anyone you know been “re-engineered” right out of a job or a company?

How have corporations in the US and Canada gone astray?

Have Baby Boomers been particularly hurt by financial re-engineering?

Have those in line operations suffered at the expense of financial wiz kids?

Do you think many companies are finally seeing the light?

Will Boomers return to corporate jobs as the economy picks up, or will they prefer to take the entrepreneurial route back to financial prosperity?

For the next story in the series, “Will Boomers Save Twitter?” click on: http://wp.me/pxD3J-K

For the Introduction to Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation, please go to: http://wp.me/pxD3J-3

For a look at how “Sophisticated Communes” may take Baby Boomers full circle as we age, see: http://wp.me/pxD3J-x

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11 Responses to “Re-Engineered to Smithereens – Art’s Story”

  1. Greg Howard Says:

    How well I can identify with Art’s situation.

    I’m supposed to be in my prime earning years, the last 15 before retirement. Yet career fields have changed so much.

    It seems so many companies have rewritten their corporate structures to eliminate the most experienced and admittedly salary intensive employees. However, at what cost?

    We’ve all seen the drop in customer service, companies’ commitments to service what they sell, etc.

    I thought the article was very well written and very throughtfully prepared.

  2. Anne Bolender Edwards Says:

    Hi Ellen,

    Fascinating article.

    It reminded me of what happened in the small country that I was living in during the 1990s. This country underwent an economic restructuring and “asset redistribution” that resulted in many senior staff in government departments, private organizations, institutions, etc., losing their jobs.

    People who lost their jobs had little choice: They either retired or became consultants. However, as you mention in your article, not everyone in their 50’s today wants to do either – and there seems to be some alternatives just beginning to appear.

    As an example, I read an article recently that talked about the rise of “White-Collar Franchises.” These are similar to the traditional service-industry franchises (like Burger King or Remax) only geared towards consultants who don’t want to develop a consulting business from scratch. A franchise aimed at Life Coaches was the one I remembered noticing.

    And then there was your recent post on co-housing and its suggestion that co-housing communities could be built around budding entrepreneurs.

    These types of articles, plus the fact that the Internet still has so much untapped potential to it, leads me to believe that new business models (either physical or virtual) will develop over the next little while, with Baby Boomers leading the way.

    Cheers
    Anne

  3. Tom S. Says:

    Ellen:

    A well-written article that captures the essence of what’s been happening in corporate America the past 20 years.

    While I’ve not been at Art’s level of achievement, I have ridden the same coaster he has. I am currently looking for a new opportunity after the declining economy forced me out last fall. Only slightly younger than Art, getting noticed among the flood of young MBA’s is certainly a challenge. One has to wonder if experience is really valued anymore.

  4. Paula Camposano Robinson Says:

    Hi Ellen,

    Thanks for another fabulous post in your series “Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation.”.

    As a Baby Boomer, I was very fortunate to have been employed by the same healthcare company for 28 years, which as many of us know today is not a very common element in the job market.

    However, I always had a dream of owning my own healthcare company rather than reporting to someone else, even though I was in a senior management position, steadily advancing in my nursing career in administrative/executive positions over these 28 years.

    I resigned with payment of sick bonus hours that were never used and no severance package, very little savings in a 401K plan (our health care system was behind the times in offering this to its employees across all affiliates). But I knew if I wanted to fulfill my dream, I had to take the risk. A big one at that!

    As is the case with most Baby Boomers my age, my work ethic is such that no matter who I would have worked for, I always give 150%. It could have been McDonald’s, it would not have mattered. It is just part of my DNA.

    I was raised in a family of five, and it was always “work before pleasure.” My parents never handed anything to us, so we worked for what we wanted or at least contributed – whether it was toward our first car, overnight travel, and even college.

    I never gave it a second thought, and actually often had two jobs and attended college at the same time. That was life back then, and we didn’t know that it should be any different. Even though we had the luxury of living in a middle class neighborhood, you were expected to contribute to your success and to give back something to society. To be a volunteer was a big part of life after college.

    Owning my own business (with partner and spouse) is not an easy endeavor. But if you have been putting in 150% of your efforts for someone else – who may or may not take advantage of you, your skills, and your drive – at least you know you can learn to control your own destiny with a well-thought-out business plan and enough capital and reserves.

    I do find that most corporations “reorganize.” They hire younger and newer graduates that they can try to “mold” to fit the company’s overall mission. However, this often backfires. The younger individual needs nurturing, lacks experience, and often lacks self-esteem, and in the overall plan, this may hurt the company.

    Yes, they pay them a lesser wage, but the Y and X generations do not have the intrinsic work ethic that the Baby Boomers my age (50’s) have. At least this is my opinion.

    I don’t ever plan on fully retiring, but when and if I can make that choice, overseeing a successful company (mine) on a part-time basis would be my goal.

    A bit of time for travel, more time with family and friends, but not retired.

    Maybe I’m dreaming, as I too may look down the road many years from now (depending on the economy) and may have to reorganize my own company.

    I hope this never happens, but I know that I would always want the most knowledgeable, productive, and customer service-oriented staff representing me and my company.

    Knowing that many Baby Boomers grew up in similar circumstances, I would always look first at other ways of cutting costs in a tough economy without cutting out the “lifeblood” of an organization – its ambassadors.

    My employees must believe in what they are doing and take pleasure in their work. They must be serious about our business model, while treating it as if it were their own!

    Thanks for your great insight!

    Paula

  5. scott adams Says:

    I have needed a few days to digest this issue, and I hope more Boomers care enough to comment and act collectively.

    Like Paula, many of us have always given 150%, and Yep, I have experienced re-engineering but I would call it something else.

    My dad worked for a company for 35 years, but we had to move every five years, and he was never home. He died two years after he retired.

    I think few people do this any longer. I, too, have chosen to be my own boss for the same reasons as Paula.

    It has hurt the Boomer generation most, because while it occurred before, the lifetime employment our parents had ended with the Baby Boomers. This transition has destroyed all the safety nets provided by our society except social security (stop laughing).

    We can continue to and need to express our anger, but we also need to find solutions.

    The Baby Boomer generation is remembered for what happened in the ’60s, a time when we marched and stopped a war, fought for laws to end segregation, and moved mankind toward a better world.

    Having worked hard all of our lives and watched the “wiz kids” lose half our savings, our jobs, and our homes,we now face growing old, living poor, perhaps with our kids, and being treated as a burden.

    Now t is time to start to demand a respectable life with dignity and to give renewed value to ourselves. This is a fight that must be fought collectively.

    The question is “are we too tired to retake control of our lives”? This battle is not for the rights and equality of our Elders, because that is who we will become in future decades, as will eveybody else!

    We need to redefine the last third of one’s life as a time for new opportunities to thrive. It is once again a good fight against injustices.

  6. Paula Camposano Robinson Says:

    Hi Scott,

    Very thought provoking reply! Thanks, and I’m with you about retaking control of our lives as well as fighting against injustice.

    Thanks for the response.
    Paula

  7. Ramsey Says:

    Hi Ellen,

    Another well-written article in your series Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation. This article captures the challenges Boomers have been experiencing in corporate America.

    The bad news, unfortunately, is that employers have historically targeted the over-50 age group when downsizing.

    The good news is that, once the economy starts to grow again, employers will need to employ Boomers for three very specific reasons:

    1. Generations X and Y do not have the same work ethic as Boomers

    2. The numbers of Gen X and Y are insufficient to meet the employment needs of employers and

    3. Boomers’ experience allows them to work more efficiently and therefore more productively.

    Now if we can only emege from this stubborn recession and live to experience “Happy days are here again.”

    Experience and work ethic will once again be valued by employers.

    Ramsey

  8. Mike Montague Says:

    Some interesting things are written here. I read some expression of the frustration that occurs when dreams are stopped in their tracks. A first reaction, whom do I blame? Who did this to me?

    When I feel this way, I reach for some perspective. Someone said “a recession is when your neighbor losses his job, a depression is when you lose your job.” When my neighbor loses his job, empathy is mustered. When I lost my job after 26 dedicated years, perspective was helpful.

    My father’s generation experienced a much tougher life than most of us are going through. Bank failures that wiped out life’s savings (for those who had savings), a decade long depression, anemic or non-existing safety nets, followed by consignment into a costly and disruptive foreign war.

    I don’t know how my Dad managed to support my oldest three siblings in those conditions. I came later during the good times.

    Over the past 63 years, our society has made incremental and significant economic improvements that built the largest middle class in the world. And at the same time diminished the stigma of minority status in our pluralistic society.

    How did this happen? Was it due to guaranteed jobs for life, or was it due to continual sacrifice and hard work tempered by an ideal of justice for all?

    What has changed? Post WWII we were essentially the only developed economy left standing. The competitive landscape is much different now. Back then, we expanded our productive capacity to quickly supply the world with the food and goods it could not produce. We had industrious people with a solid work ethic and a good chance to improve their standard of living.

    Post WWII, we were bursting with pride and vigor, and the maternity wards were filled. Young men and women remembered the lean years and horrors of war and eagerly worked. Companies expanded because of the growth in our population and due to new access to foreign markets.

    The competitive landscape is much different now. We must compete with the world on an even footing. Also, our society is different now. Societal values are so much different. For example, it amazes us to see 1950’s TV shows, because we don’t recognize ourselves.

    While it is only a generalization, most men in my father’s generation did not spend a lot of time thinking about who they were or in empathizing with the other guy. They just went to work, many long hours, often times with two jobs.

    But that was prologue. Now we realize a fundamental truth: We are searching for some new way to understand who we have become or are becoming. This applies to the Baby Boomers collectively, but also to me as an individual who finds myself needing a new occupation and new income.

    As I look forward, I am reminded that the past was tough for me and for others with its unique challenges and unknowns. I am heartened by that, and I feel hopeful.

  9. Mike Montague Says:

    Ellen,

    Let me directly answer your summary questions.

    Have you or anyone you know been “re-engineered” right out of a job or a company?

    I was re-engineered out of a job with a company that I started with right out of college, 26 years earlier. We were successful, and they still are successful. They had been profitable going back their entire 90+ years. They embraced the philosophy, “don’t let success stand in the way of continuous improvement.”

    I participated in the re-engineering, and then later on my middle management level was re-engineered despite beating profit expectations by 50%.

    How have corporations in the US and Canada gone astray?

    The answer to that question deserves its own book. We need to start by examining assumptions implicit in the question.

    Have Baby Boomers been particularly hurt by financial re-engineering?

    Yes. Most of middle management is filled with middle-aged Baby Boomers. We all understand the sales pitch: “our prices are lower because we cut out the middle man.” Just replace man with management, and it all becomes clear.

    As the technology to self-manage becomes accessible, the ability to manage larger numbers becomes doable and the need for middle management decreases.

    Have those in line operations suffered at the expense of financial wiz kids?

    I don’t think so. Line management is the hardest job to replace with financial wizardry. Someone has to turn real-world knobs in order for real-world products to be produced. Line management is the direct supervision of those knob turners and machine operators.

    I have seven Boomer siblings and many Boomer friends and relatives. Most of those who were in middle management have suffered displacement late in their careers. Most of those who were line managers or workers have suffered some displacement throughout their working lives. Maybe it just seems to hurt more late in career or after you thought you were on management’s side.

    Do you think many companies are finally seeing the light?

    Which light? Exxon Mobil is one of the most successful US companies. According to their communications, they employ about 30,000 in the USA and about 50,000 people outside the USA.

    While Boomers make up over 30% of the USA population, less than 8% of the world population are Boomers. So multinational companies’ success is not tied into employing the Baby Boom generation.

    Will Boomers return to corporate jobs as the economy picks up, or will they prefer to take the entrepreneurial route back to financial prosperity?

    I chose to start my own business at age 49. After five years on my own, I won’t go back anytime soon.

    Mike

  10. Lucille Force Says:

    Great article.

    I can definitely identify with it. Luckily for me, I’ve been involved in healthcare my entire life. Healthcare, especially nursing, is so diversified. So as long as I can breathe and have my health, I foresee myself working for many, many years to come.

  11. Todd L. Says:

    The irony of the whole situation is that the financial engineering did not, and to this day does not, achieve the increase in profits that was its supposed purpose.

    The whole activity was based on uneducated, inexperienced, novice ideas about business that never had any chance of increasing profits.

    Too many idiots believed and still believe that the revenue fairy comes and puts the number in the top line of the income statement. They have not even the basic understanding of how the people and machinery of their businesses work to realize the revenue and the profits.

    For sure the financial engineering (let’s call it what it really is, a cost-cutting hack job) decreased costs, but in the same way that slaughtering the cows at a dairy farm decreases costs. Yet in the long run, it irrevocably destroys the entire business.


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