On the road in and around Memphis, Tennessee...


It’s never ceases to amaze me how corporate cultures can vary so much, especially companies in the same industry. Take my visit to Guardsmark as an example. Guardsmark, a major player in the security/protection industry, has a bunker mentality. Their corporate offices are in downtown Memphis in a building that looks like it was built in the 1930’s.

A small plaque near the entrance says "Guardsmark." After walking into the building through glass double doors I’m greeted by another set of glass double doors-which have to be buzzed open by a receptionist sitting in a glass booth. Outside the glass booth stands a Guardsmark security guard. Now one of my biggest gripes is talking to someone behind a piece of glass through a hole. It’s okay at movie theaters but at a corporate headquarters? Lots of companies I’ve visited, however, have this unappealing set-up.

Back to Guardsmark, a sign near the guard warns that anyone entering the building will be subject to a search of their belongings. The receptionist makes a lackluster effort to find me

a contact person. Failing in that she tells me to come back another day. I tell the receptionist that my visit is a one-shot deal but that makes no difference to her.

Now, let’s compare this with my visit several months earlier to Wackenhut Corporation (one of Guardsmark competitors) in Boca Raton, Florida. It was completely the opposite. Headquarters at Wackenhut are in an office building with a large atrium. People come and go without passing any security checks. Employees at Wackenhut were informed of my pending arrival and gave me a warm reception.

Arcadian Corporation

Arcadian Corporation, a privately-held chemical/fertilizer company, leases space in an eight-story building about 18 miles from downtown Memphis. Charles Lance, Jr., Vice President-Administration and an avid bicyclist meets with me and answers my questions. On the wall in

his office is a framed article from "Business Week" magazine. The article features a Houston-based company, Cain Chemical. The picture accompanying the article shows the owner, Cain, among some of his employees. Lance is one of the employees in the picture. Cain sold Cain Chemical to Occidental Petroleum and made a bundle of money. That must be why he’s smiling in the picture.

Arcadian is a new company set up by Cain. I ask Lance if there’s any special reason for the corporate offices being in Memphis. He says Cain just decided Memphis would be a good place to have a headquarters.

Conwood Company L.P.

My visit to Conwood Company L.P. is short. Offices are in a four-story building located in an office park about 20 miles from downtown Memphis. The company, which markets chewing tobacco, has a display case in lobby displaying brands of chewing tobacco.

The receptionist calls up the CEO’s secretary to find out who received my advance letter. But first:

A Note on How I Operate...

About two weeks before my anticipated arrival at a company, I send a letter to a company’s CEO, explaining my mission and I include several news clippings. I call it the trickle-down effect—I send the letter to the CEO and it trickles down to Corporate Communications, Public Relations, Public Affairs, Corporate Affairs, etc. Because what I’m doing is so unusual many companies aren’t sure to whom or where to refer my letter. So I’ve ended up talking to security directors, people in personnel, corporate treasurers, legal counsel, marketing, and human resources. Usually I find the person who has my letter by asking a company’s receptionist to check with the CEO’s secretary.

...Getting back to Conwood. The receptionist talks to the CEO’s secretary who tells her she’s "too busy" and knows nothing. The receptionist, who could care less at this point, refuses my request to make phone calls to other company departments.

An Aside on Decliners...

About half the companies I visit are privately held. Some of these companies are secretive or just don’t want to talk with me. The following ploy is by far their favorite method for getting rid of me: They tell me they didn’t receive my introduction letter, which I always send several weeks before my arrival. This always sounds fishy, especially when I’m in a city visiting 15 companies and the other 14 companies have all received my information packet and letter.

AutoZone Inc.

AutoZone Inc., a regional do-it-yourself auto parts retail chain, is headquartered in a former department store building located in a mall about 12 miles from downtown Memphis. Talking

with Joseph Hyde, III, CEO, in his windowless, doorless office, I ask him why they bought the building (which use to house Jefferson-Ward, a chain similar to Sears or J.C. Penny.) Hyde tells me the building had been sitting empty with a price too good to pass up.

Contemporary art is scattered throughout the building. Escalators (leftover from department store days) connect the first and second floors. About 600 people work in the building. A greenhouse (also leftover from the department store) adjoins the building and is used as a meeting room. The greenhouse houses a Ping-Pong table and during my tour, several employees are fiercely going at it.

Hyde’s business card has his name, his title—Chairman & Chief Executive Officer—and the words: "Customer Satisfaction." Also, employees receive their paychecks in an envelope with the words, "A satisfied customer made this check possible." See a theme here?

Many of the employees (executives included) wear a shirt to work which looks like the type airline pilots and Federal Express employees wear. The shirt is white, with a blue bar/flap on the

shoulders. Hyde might have got the idea from Federal Express because he mentions being on that company’s Board of Directors.

AutoZone is also big on pep/cheerleading rallies for its employees. Hyde might have picked up that idea from Sam Walton at Wal-Mart because he use to be on Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors.

(For more information see: AZO)

On the road in and around Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee...

First American Corp.

I’m in downtown Nashville on the sixth floor of the 28-story structure known as First American Corporation. The sixth floor is where I find the executives for First American (a bank holding company). According to my advance research, James Smith, Jr. is the CEO but I discover he’s now Chairman and the new CEO is Dennis Bottorff. Though Bottorff has been with the company only a few months, he takes a stab at answering my questions.

Like many other banks, First American (1991 revenues $503 million) no longer owns the building it occupies. The building was built in the 1970’s.

The wood-paneled boardroom has a working fireplace. Bottorff tells me his corner office was furnished by taking furniture out of storage. Bottorff says that’s OK with him since getting the company back on track is more important right now than furnishing his office.

(For more information: FATN)

J.C. Bradford & Co.

My visit to J.C. Bradford & Company, a regional brokerage firm, is a lot of fun. W. Lucas Simons, Managing Partner, takes me to the trading floor. I type BIKE <GO> on several of the traders’ Bloombergs and then entertain them with tales of my trek around corporate America.

The company’s corporate offices, located in downtown Nashville, are unusual. They’re located on top of a nine-story, above-ground parking garage. The company bought the air rights above the parking garage and erected a four-story corporate headquarters six years ago. About 500 employees work in the place.

W. Lucas Simons, Managing Partner and J.C. Bradford Jr., Senior Partner (his father founded the company in 1927), have offices on the second floor. Simons tells me they chose the second floor to be near the trading floor action on the first floor (which is really the 10th floor because the first nine floors are parking garage.)

I ask Simons why his plainly-furnished office is so small. Simons answers "because the price of luxurious offices would come out of OUR pockets"—referring to the partnership company structure.


About two miles from the airport and seven miles from downtown, I find the plain two-story, company-owned headquarters of Shoney’s. Shoney’s (1991 revenues $992 million) operates over 1,700 restaurants (Shoney’s, Lee’s Famous Recipe, Captain D’s and several steakhouses.)

Leonard Roberts, CEO, isn’t in but Dawn Eagen, his secretary, fields my questions.

Behind headquarters is a Shoney’s commissary and distribution center. About 300 employees work for the company, which surprisingly has no cafeteria.

Robert’s first floor corner office has a view of the parking lot. I count three fake plants. On one wall is a collection of pins from all the Major League baseball teams. There’s also a picture of Roberts with President Bush and a picture of Roberts with Benjamin Hooks, head of the NAACP.

Eagen tells me the company has two corporate jets—both Mitsubishi.

(For more information: SHN)


GENESCO, is a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of footwear and a manufacturer, wholesaler of tailored clothing. GENESCO, stands for GENEral Shoe COmpany. Johnston & Murphy, Jarman and Harman are a few of the company’s retail stores.

Headquarters is in a six-story building built in the 1960’s and located on airport property. Matter of fact, one of the airport’s runways is only about 500 yards from the building. The company also has a distribution center located on its 51-acre site and several retail outlets nearby. The headquarters building has 300,000 square feet; figuring in the distribution center, there’s a total of 800,000 square feet. Escalators connect each floor—these were big in the 1960’s when the building was built. Teresa Miller, Director-Corporate Communications, gives me an extensive tour of the place.

Executive offices are on the 4th floor. I meet William Wire, II, the company’s CEO. He has a corner office on the fourth floor and a tremendous view of planes taking off. I also meet E. Douglas Grindstaff, GENESCO’s new President. He came aboard last month after running Procter & Gamble’s $1.5 billion-revenue Canadian operations.

One of the product showrooms contains a glass showcase filled with handmade shoes. What’s so special about these shoes under glass? GENESCO has furnished the last four Presidents of the U.S. with hand-made shoes. Two pairs of each pair of shoes are made—one for the President and one for the showcase.

On the road in and around Chattanooga, Tennessee...

But first, the Rooster suburb...

I’m riding to Chattanooga from Nashville on a two-lane backroad (OK, I admit it—I’m humming "Pardon Me Boys, Is That The Chattanooga Choo-Choo?"). I’m about 40 miles outside of Chattanooga at 7:30 in the morning when I pass through a tiny community of mobile homes.

Then I see a very strange sight. Someone’s front yard has about 50 little dog houses on it and each doghouses has a rooster on top of or beside it. It’s early in the morning and all the roosters are cock-a-doodle-dooing.

I ride on down the road about a quarter mile but something keeps puzzling me about those roosters. I can’t stand it finally so I stop my bike, turn around and go back for another look. This time I see that each rooster stays in his own doghouse area because he’s chained by one leg to the doghouse. Very strange. It’s too early in the morning to go knock on the door and find out what’s happening here. The only thing I can think of is that they’re stud(?) roosters.

A few words about Chattanooga:

Chattanooga, a city of almost 200,000 people, is unusual in that it’s a two newspaper town. With most of today’s major newspapers being gobbled up by the big chains, "The Chattanooga Times" (morning) and the "Chattanooga News Free Press" (afternoon) are particularly unusual in that they are BOTH independents. And unlike most two-paper towns, Chattanooga’s afternoon paper is the dominant paper. I meet with John Vass, Jr., the Business Editor of the News Free Press. He suggests I stop in and see John T. Lupton, a Chattanoogan on the Forbes 400 wealthiest list. Vass fills me in on Lupton’s history. Lupton’s family had the first bottling franchise of Coca-Cola.

When Lupton sold the franchise back to Coca-Cola a few years ago he made a mint. Lupton has an office (to manage his investments) in a building located next to the Krystal building. It’s on the 7th floor of the 12-story structure. I have no luck when I visit; Lupton’s secretary says he’s out of town.

Provident Life & Accident Insurance Co.

Provident Life & Accident Insurance Company (1991 revenues $2.8 billion) is headquartered in downtown Chattanooga in two company-owned, fortress-type buildings totaling 850,000 square feet. The seven-story, white marble structure with fountains out front was built in 1959 and houses the executive offices. Across a busy street and connected by an aerial walkway of glass and marble is the newer building, built in 1983.

I get a warm welcome from David Unruh, Vice President Corporate Communications. About 2,500 employees work in the two buildings. My tour of the boardroom takes me past the pictures of all the company CEOs since its start in 1887. One of those pictures is Unruh’s grandfather.

I can’t see CEO Winston Walker’s office because "he’s in a meeting". So Unruh, the Assistant to the CEO, the Vice President of Human Resources and I go down to the Investment Department. They want me to show them my column on the BLOOMBERG. As we walk into the trading room all the investment people turn and stare. Turns out they never saw a guy in shorts leading a bunch of corporate executives into their department before.

The Krystal Company

The Krystal Company operates over 200 fast-food hamburger restaurants in eight states in the Southeast. They’re the southern version of White Castle "sliders".

Krystal went public about six months ago according to a prospectus given to me by Thomas Whitley, Jr., Vice President Marketing. Company revenues in 1991 were $210 million with net income of $3 million. Corporate headquarters are on the 4th, 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a 10-story building in downtown Chattanooga. Though the company has the name "Krystal" on the sides of the building, they lease the space. About 150 employees work in the building, which has no cafeteria. The nearest Krystal restaurant is several miles away.

Whitely tells me that the name Krystal refers to the crystal ball, which is in the company logo and also to crystal clean.

In a hallway on the 10th floor (where the executives have their offices) I notice several glass cases filled with company memorabilia. My favorite item is a picture of President Ronald Reagan and his staff eating Krystals on Air Force One. There’s also a tiny basketball used by Spud Webb for a company commercial and a hat worn by the legendary coach Bear Bryant.

As a fast-food connoisseur, I rate the Krystal hamburger better the White Castle hamburger. I will now give you my list of the best fast-food, quarter-pound burgers in the country in order of excellence:

(1) Hardee’s (Big Deluxe)

(2) Carl’s Jr.

(3) Wendy’s (Big Classic)

(4) Rally’s

(5) Burger King (Whopper)

(6) Sonic

(7) Back Yard Burgers (that’s the name of the chain)

(8) McDonald’s (Quarter-Pounder)

(9) Dairy Queen



McKee Foods Corp.

By snack cake weight, privately-held McKee Foods Corporation (over $430 million in revenues) is the largest snack cake manufacturer in the United States. (I guess their stuff is heavier than Hostess.) Little Debbie snack cakes and Sunbelt granola products are the company’s best known brands.

Headquarters is about 20 miles north of Chattanooga in the town of Collegedale, Tennessee. Riding up the hilly driveway to get to the corporate offices I pass several large production plants and what looks like a distribution center. I count at least 70 tractor-trailer trucks in the lot.

I walk into the lobby of the three-story, red brick structure and the first thing I see are two large paintings on the walls. One is O.D. McKee, co-founder of the company and still Chairman of the Board; the other painting is of his recently deceased wife and co-founder of the company, Ruth McKee. Next to the receptionist is a bowl of Little Debbie snacks for visitors. Nice. There’s also a display case containing the company’s entire product line.

I meet with Tom Pyke, Assistant to the President. He’s a personable guy but very leery about answering most of my questions. He explains he’s new at the job and doesn’t want to give out information that might be confidential. He does tell me the company has 2600 full-time employees in Collegedale (population 4,500) so this is really a company town.

I’m not able to see the CEO’s office or the boardroom because Ellsworth McKee (CEO) isn’t in and Pyke doesn’t want to take me in there when the boss isn’t around. He tells me the company has two corporate aircraft—a Citation 5 and a Citation 3.

I chalk up my visit as pretty uneventful by the time Pyke walks me out to my bike at the end of our meeting. Then, as we pass by the receptionist’s desk, Pyke gets a phone call from O.D. McKee. The 86-year old Chairman of the Board, wants to meet me. Outside the lobby entrance is O.D. McKee’s reserved parking space. I parked my bicycle right next to his spot. Evidently McKee asked someone why a bicycle was parked there and that’s how he heard about my visit.

I visit McKee in his large corner office on the first floor. McKee is funny and very modest. His office is filled with plaques, family pictures and personal items. I notice a three-foot wooden elephant in the corner and ask him about it. "I’m a Republican", he replies. Four scale-model horse and wagon wood carvings are mounted on a wall; turns out McKee himself carved the bottom one.

Then Pyke gets a great idea. He decides to take a picture of McKee and me for the company’s newsletter. We all walk outside and stand next to the Whippet—a 1928 car McKee used back in 1933 when he sold snack cakes out of the car’s backseat.

As I prepare to leave, McKee tries to give me several boxes of his snacks. I tell him I have no room on my bike for boxes of snack cakes but finally, seeing how McKee really wants to do this, I agree to let myself eat cake. McKee puts on one of those white hairnets, walks over to the manufacturing plant and returns carrying a box of Little Debbie "Nutty Bars" right off the product on line. Can’t get much fresher than that.

Knoxville City Hall

Riding into downtown Knoxville I pass through the park—site of the 1982 World’s Fair. A few buildings from the fair remain but mostly it looks pretty faded. I stop by City Hall and spend a few minutes with James York, Deputy Director Finance Department.

"Has the city paid off the money it raised to host the World’s Fair yet?", I ask.

"No," York answers. "In the year 2005 we will."

Then I ask York about the financial health of the city. York tells me Knoxville is in good shape. York goes on to explain some of the reasons for the city’s fiscal stability: the University of Tennessee campus which is close to downtown; the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) which is headquartered in Knoxville; and Martin Marrietta which has a big research facility nearby.

Tennessee Valley Authority

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a wholly-owned corporation of the United States government created by the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. TVA manages the Tennessee River, the nation’s fifth largest river system. TVA is also the largest electric power producer in the country.

TVA headquarters are two side-by-side, identical 12-story buildings in downtown Knoxville. In the building’s lobby I find something you don’t see every day—a working earthquake seismograph machine. I check the machine to see if things look normal before proceeding to the reception desk.

The TVA had revenues in 1991 of $5.1 billion and net income of $286 million. The TVA is headed by a three-member Board of Directors appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

My introduction materials, which I sent to John Winters, Chairman of the Board, trickled down to H. Reid Campbell, Specialist Customer Services. Campbell takes me into a conference room and plays a video all about the TVA. Campbell tells me the TVA leases these two buildings and occupies three others in downtown Knoxville. It employs a total of 1,900 employees in the Knoxville area.

I ask Campbell why the TVA is headquartered in Knoxville. Campbell says the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933 stipulated the TVA be located near Muscle Shoals, Alabama. However, due to the lack of train service from Muscle Shoals to Washington D.C., the locale was changed to Knoxville.

There’s no boardroom here. Campbell tells me I can’t see Winters’ office because I would need to get "official approval" from several people. I offer to call up Winters’ secretary and ask her myself but Campbell nixes that idea in horror. Bureaucracy at it’s finest.