For the better part of a century, Sears, Roebuck and Company touched the lives of almost everyone in America. A stunning tale of marketing and savvy, the company started selling watches and quickly became an essential source of goods for the American home. Sears brought the Christmas dreams of distant children to life; introduced the American homemaker to a collection of appliances that stripped much of the drudgery from daily living; and put solid, dependable tools in the hands of strong, eager men. At the same time, it forged a solid relationship with its customers, earning that most valuable business asset of them all: loyalty.And then, when it could least afford to, Sears lost its way. It gradually forgot about its customers. It no longer understood (or cared) who its competitors were. It shifted its focus inward, to the interests and needs of its huge bureaucracy, all at the expense of the customers who found themselves in declining, dismal stores.
A couple of factors save this book from being just another stroll down CEO lane. First, the turnaround of Sears, Roebuck is far from complete. Although the company is in better shape than when Martinez, formerly vice-chairman at Saks Fifth Avenue, took over, it is still not on a par with either of its main competitors, Wal-Mart and Target. Thus it provides a snapshot of Martinez's participation in a continuing turnaround effort; he left the company last year after eight years as chairman and CEO. The second distinguishing factor is the interweaving of Sears's history. Martinez and Madigan, a senior writer at the Chicago Tribune, not only provide fascinating background information, but also explain why the company floundered. Martinez cites the three elements by which Sears "helped [its customers] leave": ignoring them, disregarding competitors and "[f]ocusing almost all of [its] energy on the construction of a magnificent, frustrating bureaucracy." Martinez offers predictable management lessons: "The Customer Is Everything"; "Your Employees Are Golden." But however obvious such tenets may be, Sears clearly lost sight of them. Despite flowery writing ("Everyone in that world had to understand that the customer is the sun at the center of our solar system"), the story of how Sears lost its way is engaging, even if readers aren't certain it will regain the right path. Part management guide, part cautionary tale and part historical recap, this book should dappeal to the ever-growing management and executive crowd. (Nov. 6) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2000
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Excerpt from The Hard Road to the Softer Side by Arthur Martinez
The Bad and the Brilliant
In the life of every individual and in the life of every corporation there is a defining moment. The thinking, the abstraction of planning, melts away, the fog lifts, the air clarifies, and under a bright sun and fresh sky, what must be done takes on a stunning, undeniable shape. It is rare that an event of that nature would happen in the life of a corporation and in the life of an individual at the same time.
My moment, and Sears' moment, too, came on a company jet with a handful of Sears executives heading home from a trip to Mexico to review the company's business there. It was early December 1992. I had been on the Sears team for only three months. I had been brought in to revive the Sears retail business, its merchandising group, and potentially to run the whole company. (I'll tell you later about the unusual journey that carried me to Sears, a trip that led some to conclude I had lost my mind.)
My first weeks on the job had been real eye-openers.
I dove deep into this treasure of a company and found layer upon layer of trouble, a hemorrhaging of red ink, indecision about what to do, and an almost palpable anxiety.
My most formidable adversary, and ultimately my strongest ally, would be culture, a century of culture and the mammoth bureaucracy it had created. Bureaucracy was so deeply developed and planted at Sears that it seemed for all the world as though the place had been designed by one of those obsessive Soviet functionaries at mid-century. At the same time, a lot of it took on the earmarks of the classic Potemkin village, with fresh paint and flowers on the outside masking an operation that was close to collapse. The enemy, I knew from the outset, was us. The challenge would be to find what was solid, dependable, even brilliant inside of this company and use it to create an entirely new Sears.
That had been my message and my mantra since the day I arrived at Sears: Cultural transformation must always be at the top of the agenda at Sears. The reason for that was the same on the day I left as it was on the day I first walked in.
Sears was in love with its past and entrapped by it at the same time.
Trapped in the Amber of Its Own History
These kinds of things happen to institutions all the time. They keep playing out yesterday's agenda without recognizing that the world has changed and that it continues to change every minute of every day. They ride their old horses onto a modern battlefield, then puzzle about why they are losing a war to an enemy who has tanks and machine guns.
The great irony was that Sears had been a model for change from the very beginning, from its huge catalog operation to its shift to retail stores, a wrenching struggle that transformed the nature of the company, and the nature of the American retailing industry at the same time. Even as I was leaving in the fall of 2000, Sears was embarking on another in its long string of adventures, this time moving onto the Internet, finding a new way to reach customers and meet their needs.
At the same time, the company I walked into in 1992 was becoming the poster child of the business stagnation movement. It was as though Sears had forgotten the strongest parts of its own history, the most important lessons it had learned in decades of serving the American consumer.