Years ago, I helped organize a lawyer’s event – a fundraising ball for the Boston Bar Foundation. The keynote speech was delivered by Jeffrey Swartz, the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Timberland Company (“Timberland”) (www.Timberland.com). Yes, the boot company.
Mr. Swartz was funny and engaging. He was passionate and hopeful. He was inspiring. He’s a young guy, who arguably has benefited from the lucky sperm/egg club by becoming the third generation of the Swartz family to lead Timberland. (Grandfather, Nathan Swartz, invested in the predecessor company of Timberland in 1952, and his dad, Sidney, continues as Chairman of the company.) I still remember his message: In essence, “doing well and doing good” in business are inextricably linked. He expounded a level of corporate responsibility that few companies – especially publicly traded companies that are beholden to shareholders – ever achieve. Timberland (stock ticker: TBL) not only “talked the talk” but under Mr. Swartz’s leadership has consistently “walked the walk.” Few people preach corporate responsibility like Jeff Swartz. He believes and demonstrates that justice should guide commerce and that profit and purpose should be married.
Think about the companies that you do business with personally or through work, i.e. the entities to which you give your money. Do they espouse beliefs that you are proud to support? More so, do these companies that grow with your financial support – either through direct investment like stock purchase or by buying their products at a local store – make positive choices; choices that enhance our society in ways far greater than merely increasing the wealth of investors? Do they simply do what is right? I think that we should ask – no, demand – more. And when companies fail us, we should point that out and ask them to do better.
Acknowledging that I have already given attention to a commercial venture, something this blog never intended to do, I am going to violate that rule even more below. Because, when a business does right, when a corporate enterprise personifies good, we should recognize it, thank the people responsible, demand that they continue on that path…, and then use them as an example to inspire change in other businesses.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the midst of my morning routine. While showering, 105.9 FM’s (www.theriver1059.com) morning music show was interrupted by required commercials. The second commercial, for NewAlliance Bank, caught my ear more than most that are happily drowned out by the water flowing over my head. The advertisement contained a reference that I found offensive. While digesting the concept, the music restarted and I found myself singing the words of “Viva La Vida” along with the band members of Coldplay (great song to start the day!). And, I forgot about the advertisement.
The next day, repeating my ritual, NewAlliance Bank’s same advertisement trickled into my shower, mixed with my Ivory soap, and left me feeling dirty for ignoring the advertisement when it filled the airways 24 hours earlier. You see, the advertisement featured a man and his buddy in a bar or club. The man becomes so excited about free checking that he takes to the dance floor. In response to dance skills probably not so different than mine, ladies are heard saying, “I think that he’s having a seizure.” [Insert laugh track.]
My sister died from a seizure. So, as some can understand, I did not find humor in this unnecessary attack on people with epilepsy and other seizure disorders.
To the medicine man in me, I was concerned by the final punch line of the advertisement. After the ladies on the dance floor call for 911 assistance, the man in the ad ultimately comments something like, “Boy, those defibrillators really pack a punch.” Seizures are not treated with electrical shocks to the heart, and I would hope that no one listening to the advertisement would carry the intended joke into an emergency situation. People sometimes do dumb things under pressure.
As I dressed, and then ate breakfast, and then witnessed my dog do his business outside, I considered my options and decided that I should do my business; that is, I should do my small part to ensure that NewAlliance Bank (www.newalliancebank.com) conducted their business in a better way. I researched to identify the person in charge of marketing for NewAlliance Bank. When I found Mark Gibson, I telephoned and left a message with his assistant (doing my best to convince her to have him call me back).
Within a short couple of hours, Mr. Gibson telephoned me. He listened patiently. He asked good and caring questions. And, when I volunteered to cut our conversation short, acknowledging that he must be incredibly busy, Mr. Gibson demurred and kept me on the phone to ensure that he fully understood my concerns. He assured me that he would review the advertisement. Mr. Gibson’s response sounded genuine, and left me feeling satisfied that NewAlliance Bank would consider the raised issues. At that moment, I decided not to pursue the matter more. I discarded the telephone number for the Epilepsy Foundation of Connecticut (www.epilepsyfoundation.org/connecticut) and also decided not to reach out to our major newspaper’s columnists. Mr. Gibson had left me satisfied. A bank that really cares? It certainly seemed that way.
The next morning was punctuated by the FedEx man ringing the doorbell at my house. To my surprise, the envelope contained a three-paragraph letter signed by Mr. Gibson, Executive Vice President – Chief Marketing Officer for NewAlliance Bank. In his letter, he reiterated that NewAlliance Bank was taking seriously my concerns about the “Dance Machine” radio spot. Again, there were no false promises to change the bank’s marketing plan. Rather, he simply verified that the bank was reevaluating the advertisement, and that he was working with his outside advertising agency (they were copied on the letter).
Again, I decided that Mr. Gibson and, by his actions, NewAlliance Bank had acted appropriately. They had demonstrated – with just a few small acts like listening, responding, and being empathetic – that their customers matter. The matter was again closed. Or, so I thought…
Five days later, a visit from an old friend was interrupted when my mobile phone erupted with the Hartford Whaler theme song (the Brass Bonanza). It was 4:45p. I was more than surprised when the caller announced himself as Mr. Gibson. He informed me that effective that day at 5:30p, the “Dance Machine” advertisement would be pulled and no longer used. (I literally got chills.)
We all make mistakes. NewAlliance made one in using the “Dance Machine” commercial. But, NewAlliance responded in a way that would make Jeff Swartz proud. The bank has done well financially and in terms of growth. In fact, it is expected that NewAlliance (NYSE: NAL) will merge with First Niagara Financial Group, Inc. (Nasdaq: FNFG) in April of this year.
Now, I have no idea if Mr. Gibson is representative of the people at NewAlliance. (Though, I got a good sense of his humanity during our conversations, and I cannot imagine him working with people who do not share his view of “doing good.”) And, I cannot predict what will happen post-merger. But, I can hope – and I can move more of my business to NewAlliance – to help ensure that “doing well and doing good” are inextricably linked … and to help ensure that the Mark Gibsons of the bank survive the merger, and continue to drive the new banking entity in a manner that is both good for its shareholders and for the rest of us.