Hunkered Down

With the east coast recovering from the overnight devastation of Hurricane Sandy, I have much compassion for residents’ plight. Prior to moving to Houston in 1998, I seldom thought about hurricanes. Since then we’ve dealt with three massive storms.

In June 2000, Tropical Storm Allison stalled and dumped 35 inches of rain – flooding downtown and a major highway. The only non-hurricane to have its name retired did an estimated $5.5 billion in damage.

In September 2005, just four weeks after Katrina devastated Louisiana, Cat 3 Rita took dead aim at Houston, then veered off to the east at the last minute. Two days prior, we were part of the largest evacuation in US history – three million people. Our normal four-hour journey to Dallas took 12. Friends left an hour after us and were in their car for 20 hours. We came home when the power returned five days later… and everything looked the same.

From 2-8 a.m. on the early morning of September 13, 2008, our family and dog gathered in a small interior bathroom to ride out Hurricane Ike. When it passed, I walked into the cul de sac to speak with neighbors, happy all seemed well. They pointed behind me to the home next to ours. It was split in half by a fallen tree. Rain returned a few hours later and ruined the house. The residents didn’t return for 14 months. In all, Ike left 2.3 million people without power… for up to three weeks. It caused $19.3 billion in destruction.

Hurricanes are one of nature’s most brutal forces. Without experiencing the fear, flooding and feelings of those involved, it’s hard to have sympathy – despite seeing the sad pictures on the news today. Thousands of your fellow citizens are dealing with a tremendous burden. Spare a moment to think of them. If you’re a believer, say a prayer. If you have spare dollars, send a few their way via Red Cross. Someday, you may be in need of a similar act of kindness. When you are, someone will be there. This is a great opportunity to pay it forward.


Peaceful Surroundings

For 15 years, I traveled to Houston to produce games at the Astrodome, Rice Stadium and other venues. My journeys consisted of landing at Hobby Airport, renting a car and driving toward the Medical Center. To me, Houston was a lot of concrete, traffic and tall buildings. So when I received a call in 1998 to come to Houston to meet a man who wrote a book about his business, I recall thinking, “Great, another trip to the asphalt jungle.”

Little did I know there is a hidden gem within Houston’s 600 spacious square miles – 30 minutes from the better known Bush Intercontinental Airport – that has pine trees and not a high-rise in sight. That author, Bud Hadfield, discovered this special place off Hwy. 290 on Telge Road about three decades ago. Enthralled with its beauty, Bud moved the franchising company he started to a scenic 100-acre creekside tract and started converting low-lying woods into a secluded campus for housing and training franchisees. Eventually, he came up with the idea for a resort on the property to host business meetings, weddings and all sorts of gatherings.

Northwest Forest Conference Center is a peaceful oasis within the hectic pace of the nation’s fourth largest city. With meeting facilities – including a ‘can’t tell it from the original’ replica of the Alamo – and comfortable sleeping rooms where the only noise you’ll hear is the sound of nature in its nocturnal splendor, Northwest Forest is serenity defined.

I arrived for that meeting with Bud not fully aware of why he invited me to spend a day with him. Seems he wanted to offer me a job. I said yes… and we relocated. For more than six years, I had an office that looked out over the expanse of Northwest Forest. Suffice it to say, I didn’t need any extra motivation to get up in the morning. Whenever my extended family and friends would see it for the first time, they were struck by its uniqueness.

I still hold meetings at Northwest Forest Conference Center – and turning into the long driveway and seeing the gorgeous trees always fills me with energy. I know there isn’t a more serene setting in Houston… and you have to drive many miles to try and find another place like it in Texas.


Figure This

During our Florida trip a few weeks ago, we stayed at a condo near Melbourne with a beautiful view of the Atlantic. Of course, since we commuted four times that week back to Orlando to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, our beach time was limited. Time on the road, however, was lengthy – 72 miles each way. We filled up the car three times in eight days. (I didn’t realize until after our return the Jeep Patriot we rented averages less than 20 miles per gallon on the highway. Ouch!)

On vacation I typically don’t pay attention to what’s happening in the world; however, I knew something was up just by watching gas prices at the same station climb from $3.49 the day we arrived to $3.65 when we departed. I found out later oil rose while we were hanging out with Mickey & Friends.

It’s interesting how government accounting works. The Consumer Price Index is a ‘market basket’ of 80,000 goods the government measures each month to determine inflation. The ‘core inflation rate’ – which you most often hear quoted and the one the Fed uses to determine monetary policy – excludes food and energy prices. That will forever strike me as strange, since you spend a lot of your earnings on food and energy.

From 1914-2012, inflation averaged 3.4 percent in this country. Of course, there were plenty of years higher and many lower. Last month, the CPI was 1.4 percent. That’s darn near nothing.

Except… consider the ever-shrinking size of consumer goods. Bought toilet paper lately? How about ice cream? Potato chips? Noticed anything about the portions? They keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller. The staple of my diet cereal is a perfect example of figures lying. Prices haven’t changed for my Golden Grahams, but the box is now ‘Net Wt 12 Oz’ and much much smaller than five years ago.

The government is right. Prices aren’t rising. For reality, though, they might want to start measuring CPA: the Consumer Pocketbook Amount.


Lessons Learned – #9

Continuing to count down the Top 10 things I learned during 2011:

Slow Improvement – In the spring I participated as a mystery shopper by reviewing a car wash. After a 30-minute undercover investigation, I spent an hour-and-a-half completing the online report about quality, appearance and customer interaction. Compensation? Reimbursement for the $12 wash. Interestingly, my biggest recommendation – ‘Fix the fence in the back that’s a falling-down eyesore’ – remains ignored. Feedback is a missed opportunity unless you’re willing to change.


Like a Rock

‘Giddyup giddyup 409’… ‘And good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye’… ‘I remember when rock was young’… ‘We’re going racing in the streets’… ‘Baby you’re much too fast.’ These lyrics are from songs – by The Beach Boys, Don McLean, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Prince – that pay tribute to a manufacturing icon: Chevrolet. From the BelAir, to the Corvette, to the Camaro, Chevy exemplifies the ‘heartbeat of America’ to multiple generations of car enthusiasts.

When Dinah Shore sang, “See the U.S.A in your Chevrolet” in the 1950’s, she popularized the brand with millions watching on the emerging technology of television. Sponsorships of Bonanza and Bewitched solidified the company in the minds of parents. Then the 1963 redesign of Corvette into the Stingray and the 1967 introduction of the Camaro made Chevy the envy of teenagers and sports car lovers. Things were good for decades in Detroit. As the famous commercial noted: “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.”

Like all companies, Chevy has its share of legacy clunkers. In the ’60s, Ralph Nader took the company to task for the faulty rear suspension of Corvair. The Vega’s engine problems and overall poor quality in the ’70s signaled the beginning of the end of America’s reign as automobile manufacturing king. The SSR – released in 2004 – tried to capitalize on the ‘retro’ movement. Time magazine described it as a “putative performance machine, heavy, underpowered and unforgivably lazy.” Then there was that whole bailout and bankruptcy at GM three years ago. Don’t look for that episode to be featured in any Chevy historical film.

It’s been a long journey for the company French racecar driver Louis Chevrolet started a century ago today with ousted GM founder William C. Durant… and there is reason to be excited about the future. Silverado is the number two selling vehicle in the country. Equinox and Cruze rank among the top 15. The plug-in hybrid Volt, released last December at a manufacturer’s suggested price of $40,000, is the most fuel-efficient car on the road with an EPA rating of 93 mpg. Like any organization, Chevy proves innovation and stick-to-it-ness are essential for long-term success.

Happy 100th birthday, Chevrolet.