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You can learn a lot from a coffee mug.
John Goff, CFO.com | US
February 24, 2002
The market for Enron collectibles has dried up considerably since we first published John Goff's article, shortly after the energy company's collapse, but his insights into Enron's corporate culture are worth a second look, and perhaps a few chuckles.
Examine our Enron archive
Reader A.W. of Pawtucket writes: As an investor, I'm worried that I might get sucked into another bad investment like Enron. Can you tell me if there was some sort of telltale sign of impending doom at the company? Was there some small hint of trouble that analysts, journalists, and investors missed?
As you know, A.W., hindsight is 20/20. What you may not know is my hat size is 7¾, and that's probably just as well.
But more to the point: Yes, A.W, there are a few things that should have been real tip-offs about Enron — if only I weren't such a thickhead. First off, take the Enron logo. Any company that stakes its entire corporate branding on an "E" that's clearly about to capsize...well, it should raise questions about senior management's long-term vision, not to mention their typesetting skills.
Even more remarkable is that Enron management seems to have been unusually proud of that listing logo. This past Friday night, I went onto eBay to purchase some collar stays (in bulk), and just for the heck of it, I typed the word "Enron" into the search engine. What came up astounded me.
There are currently almost 1,400 Enron corporate items for sale on the auction site. While some of these items are company manuals ("Off-Balance Sheet, and Loving It!"), most are promotional items — things like golf balls and tees and stick-pins and such. Think about it. 1,400 items with that wobbly Enron logo slapped on them. And that's just the merchandise listed on the eBay site. Enron's marketing department must have slept on pallets.
Now, I'm no economics guru, but it seems to me that, in the long run, companies are better served by managers who spend more of their time designing hedging strategies instead of pink Kutzie sacks. It was probably great for the Enron gift shop having all that Enron stuff. But really! As a shareholder, which asset would you rather carry on the books: a power plant in Manila, or a complete line of Enron-branded Cookie Monster pens? Take your time.
Outside of designing and approving all these items, I'm surprised Enron managers had time to do anything else. You may think it's easy to motivate an employee with the likes of a coffee mug, but it's surprisingly tricky. Mistakes happen. Business historians routinely cite Zeppelin Corp.'s "Make Sparks Fly" lidded stein as an employee incentive gone wrong. And workers in the finance department at milk company Bossy's Best once found themselves on the wrong end of things because they sent a mug to the new chief executive (the son of the company founder, mind you) with the well-intentioned but misguided inscription, "We Back the Dairy Heir."
Indeed, I'm guessing Enron's top brass took dozens of meetings coming up with the "Ask Why" coffee mug. Or the "Vision and Values" paperweight. That stuff doesn't just happen, you know.
These logo-emblazoned promotional items may, however, offer some insight into what it was actually like to work at Enron. As Prof. Nahan has asserted in his seminal treatise The Corporate Brain, "An observer can understand a great deal about a worker's state of mind simply by examining the objects on their desks."
Visitors to the Enron home office report that many of the energy trader's workers kept stress toys within easy reach. If true, this seems to jibe with what I found on the Enron page on eBay. That site is filled with rubberized, logo-stamped items: Enron rubber light bulbs, Enron rubber cell phones, Enron yo-yos, Enron puzzle cubes. Here again, I'm no expert, but if very many of your workers feel the need to keep a squeezable rubber toy within arm's reach, you might want to rethink your team-building strategy.
Interestingly, I've recently spoken with several people who claim that over the years, they've peeked into the offices of Enron's inner circle. I cannot personally verify these claims, nor can I spell Conecticut. But these folks tell me they don't recall ever seeing any rubberized toys on the desks of the company's senior executives. Enron's top brass were immune to stress themselves, it seems, but they may have been carriers.