On the road in Sacramento and central California:

MTS Inc.

I thought I’d find the corporate headquarters for privately-held MTS Inc. in a plush downtown high-rise or a modern office complex. Instead, the company has its offices in an industrial park located next door to the local Coors distributor. Not a particularly flashy location for a company in the high-profile record industry. MTS, with $800 million in revenues, owns 76 Tower Record/Video stores in the U.S., five in the United Kingdom, 15 in Japan and one in Taiwan, plus 15 Tower Book stores and three art galleries.

The company leases five buildings (160,000 square feet total) which house 700 employees. Walking into the main lobby I notice an unusual sculpture by John Battenberg. Two nude women lie side by side, wearing blindfolds. It’s called "Sapphos" and it represents injustices to women.

At least a dozen framed record platters line the lobby walls. Record companies give these awards to Tower Records for selling 500,000 or more records and tapes of a musical release.

The place reeks of cigarettes. I soon discover the source. Chain-smoking Frannie Martis, Assistant to the President, tells me Russell Solomon—Founder, President and CEO—will answer my questions. She shows me into Solomon’s large corner office. I tell her I’d like to change first, from my shorts into long pants. Martis says "don’t worry, we’re pretty casual around here."

She’s right. Shaking hands with the bearded Solomon, I’m impressed with his corporate look—army fatigue pants and a knit shirt.

I ask the amiable Solomon, who looks like he’s in his early 60’s, why the company is called MTS. Turns out these are the initials of his son, Michael T. Solomon, currently the company’s legal counsel. I then ask him why the company calls its stores "Tower Records?" He explains that he opened his first store in 1945 in the rear of an art deco movie theatre in downtown Sacramento called Tower (which is still in use) and decided to keep the name for his company.

As I expect, Solomon has a stereo/tape deck system in his office along with boxes of sample music tapes on a couch. Solomon also likes modern art. His favorite is a large painting by Woody Gywn, which hangs on a wall next to his desk. It’s shows a desolate road "somewhere in New Mexico."

Solomon’s office contains a barber chair and hula hoop. What really catches my eye, however, is his large collection of neckties. The ties are in glass enclosed cases and each tie has a business card pinned to it. Solomon chuckles and tells Martis to show me the collage of ties hanging on a wall in one of the other offices. Solomon explains by telling me this story. A few years ago he went to a party with some record executives and things got pretty wild. He ended up "stealing" everyone’s ties. So had a collage made out of the two dozen ties. After that many of the record executives who had been at the party recognized their ties in Solomon’s collage. After a positive I.D. Solomon pinned the original owner’s business card to his tie.

"So what about the 200 or so ties in the glass cases?" I ask. Warning: if you walk into Solomon’s office wearing a tie, expect it to join his collection. Solomon points to five ties that belonged to Bill Graham, the concert promoter. Graham sent these to Solomon a week before he died.

I tell Solomon about my visit to Tower’s rival, Musicland in Minneapolis. There, each manager gets their own stereo system. The higher you rise in the company, the better stereo system you get. Musicland also had a juke box (no money needed) in the company cafeteria.

When I ask Solomon about Virgin Records’ huge record superstores, Solomon answers, "I started superstores years ago."

Raley’s

Walking into the three story headquarters of Raley’s I quickly find out I won’t be talking to Thomas Raley, Founder and Chairman of the Board. The receptionist tells me he died last year. Instead, Charles Collings, CEO, agrees to meet with me.

Collings tells me most of Raley’s stores are located in northern and central California. About 350 employees work in the main building here and in an annex across the street.

As I look around Collings office I see something I’ve never seen in a CEO’s office before—a gold-plated blowtorch mounted on the wall. It’s in an elegant case of walnut, velvet and glass. Naturally I ask Collings about it. He tells me he calls it the $23 million blowtorch. Back in 1981 the company built a brand new dairy plant. A worker doing some finishing work in the plant accidentally used his blowtorch to cut through a high pressure hydraulic line. The worker panicked, dropped the still-ignited blowtorch, and ran. The fire destroyed the entire new building. The total damage, including legal damage, came to $23 million-$11 million to pay for the building and $12 million to cover lost profits.

Having the CEO as my tour guide means I get access to every nook and cranny at Raley’s. For example, even though the boardroom is in use when we walk by, Collings opens the door and asks the guys inside if they MIND if he shows me the boardroom?! And what do you think the guys in there are going to say—No?

Collings is a bit stand-offish and gruff with me. But when a fortyish woman walks off the elevator Collings perks up and introduces me to her. She’s Joyce Raley Teel, daughter of the founder. She’s also Co-Chairman of the company.

McClatchy Newspapers Inc.

This communications company (1991 revenues $427 million; net income $24 million) has its headquarters at its flagship newspaper, "The Sacramento Bee." Located 11 blocks from the state capitol and sitting on 15 acres, the company has added on to the three-story brick building over the years. The building totals 385,000 square feet now including the printing plant. The old Buffalo Brewery used to occupy this site.

I wait in the lobby for over an hour. As I’ve mentioned before, I usually get lousy receptions at media companies so I don’t expect much here. Surprise. Frank Whittaker, President of "The Sacramento Bee," takes me into his office and spends about a half hour answering my questions. Whittaker’s office decor includes a Toledo Mud Hens baseball cap.

I get a quick tour of the building when Whittaker walks me from his corner office to meet Erwin Potts, CEO. Potts and Whittaker are eager to hear about my poor receptions from media companies. They especially like the story of my visit to Knight-Ridder in Miami where a Vice President said he’d give me five minutes and then kept looking at his watch.

Several times in the conversation Potts and Whittaker mention the two Pulitzers their "The Sacramento Bee" won in 1992. Proud seems like too weak a word. Potts’ wood-paneled office isn’t very big. He has a view of Sacramento’s new light-rail commuter system passing by on an elevated track.

Outside the front entrance of the building is a large secure area for employees and visitors to lock up their bicycles. Facilities like this are few and far between. Whittaker and Potts both occasionally ride bikes to work. (For more information see: MNI)

Foundation Health Corporation

You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law, well, here’s a couple of mine. Paul’s Law #1: Whenever there are three or more companies to visit in a city, one’s ALWAYS located way out in the boonies.

Paul’s Law #2: Approaching a narrow two-lane bridge on a bicycle, two cars will ALWAYS meet you in the middle of the bridge. It’s eerie. I can be Iowa, Texas or Minnesota, in the middle of no-where, without seeing a car pass me in either directions for dozens of miles yet suddenly, when I’m on one of those narrow bridges, two cars going in different directions mysteriously end up sandwiching me between them.

But I digress. Foundation Health Care, a health care company with revenues in 1992 of $1.2 billion, is located about 25 miles east of Sacramento in the booming suburb of Rancho Cordova. My visit does not start out well. When I try to take a picture of the large three-story, concrete and glass headquarters building nothing happens; my camera is frozen. It’s 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

From Foundation Health’s lobby I call up Pam, who’s CEO Daniel Crowley’s secretary. Pam tells me Kurt Davis, Advertising Manager, is the one I’m suppose to meet with but he’s at an executive retreat and there’s no one else "authorized" to give out information. Rats. I made a four hour, 50-mile trip for nothing. (For more information see: FH)

Blue Diamond Growers

I know I’m getting close to the Blue Diamond Almond Growers Co-op offices because I can smell almonds in the air. Across the street from the two-story headquarters building is the world’s largest almond processing plant. Local publications recommending things to do in the Sacramento area usually suggest a tour of this almond processing plant.

The lobby of the headquarters building is panelled in wood and its staircase has wood carvings of almonds. The receptionist has a little flask filled with almonds on her desk. I help myself to a handful—O.K., several handfuls.

Blue Diamond Growers (1991 revenues $424 million) has a new CEO. He doesn’t want to meet with me so I ask about taking the almond plant tour. Nope, it was discontinued several weeks ago.

E&J Gallo Winery

South from Sacramento about 100 miles is Modesto, population 120,000. It’s home to the privately-held E&J Gallo winery (sales of about $1 billion.) I expect a bad reception because the company has a reputation for extreme secretiveness.

About a mile from downtown Modesto I see Gallo’s big wine vats but no signs. I ask a guy sweeping a sidewalk where I can find Gallo’s corporate offices. He tells me to follow the winding road around the buildings. Rounding the last curve I see a huge mausoleum-type structure on top of a small hill. Along one side of the road runs a creek lined with thick tall trees and a huge expanse of green grass. I feel like I’m in a cemetery.

I pedal up to the front door where I have a close encounter with six peacocks hanging out around the front entrance. I find out later the company has about 50 of them living on the grounds. They’ll let you get within three feet before they scatter.

The receptionist tells me employees refer to headquarters as the "Temple" or the "Mausoleum." She also tells me a peacock/bike story. The peacocks live in the tall trees along the creek and don’t fly much. When they come down from the trees after a night’s sleep they kind of hop down from branch to branch. So one day an employee rode his bike up the road when this large peacock hopped down on top of the him. He crashed, of course. Which reminds me, now I know where the white splotch on top of my helmet came from.

I meet with Ricard Panto, Corporate Special Services. My visit is short. I ask Panto why the company doesn’t have any signs identifying the building. He says it’s because they don’t want people dropping in for wine tours or tastings.

The interior of the building, built in 1967, features a large courtyard filled with plants and tall palms. This area is called Palm Court. It has walkways going over a large pond filled with about 20 gigantic coy—several worth $1,000. A live, somewhat friendly macaw sits in a tree. The bottom of the pond is lined with crushed green glass; it’s the same color of most Gallo wine bottles.

I don’t see much else. Panto tells me the company is mostly off limits to outsiders. As I leave, I make sure to stay away from the trees.

Save Mart Supermarkets

Five miles north of Gallo Winery I find the company-owned, two-story headquarters of Save Mart Supermarkets. This privately-held regional supermarket chain had revenues last year of $1.2 billion.

Sally Sanborn, Director of Trade & Consumer Relations, says about 200 employees work here. One of the company’s main competitors is Raley’s who I visited several days earlier.

I see Robert Piccinini, CEO’s office. He has a corner office with an antique cream separator and the stuffed and mounted head of a Bighorn sheep he shot.

Foster Farms

Continuing south from Modesto (about 30 miles) is Livingston (population 6,000)--home to the world’s largest chicken processing plant under one roof. Livingston is also headquarters for privately-held Foster Farms ($1.1 billion in revenues.) I can see Foster’s huge processing plant in the background as I ride up to its brick, one-story, Southwest-style headquarters. I walk on terra-cotta tiles to enter the lobby. The Southwest flavor continues here: Indian throw rugs on the floor and quite a few potted plants. I note a lead rooster and a chicken on the counter as I check in with the receptionist. (Not a real chicken.)

Right next door to headquarters is the Foster Farms coffee shop. The company operates nine take-out restaurants in the area and this full-service coffee shop. The fried chicken tastes excellent; it’s fresh from the plant next door. After placing my order I talk with the waitresses. One waitress tells me the Foster family is very low key. One of the two Foster brothers (one is Chairman of the Board, the other President) ate breakfast here everyday for two years before she found out who he was.

They also tell me that when the feedmill is mixing chicken beaks and feathers the stench is something awful.

A brief stop in Fresno...

I don’t have companies to visit here but still I stop and check out Fresno. In the 1980s, it was the fastest growing city in the U.S.’s top 50 cities. Fresno County grosses over $3 billion annually and is the nation’s top agriculture-producing county. Grapes are the most important crop, then cotton, oranges, nectarines (Hey, how come nobody ever makes nectarine pies?), plums, milk, cattle, lettuce, milk, turkeys and chickens.

Dairyman’s Co-op Cream Association

Forty miles south of Fresno and three blocks from downtown Tulare (population 22,000) I find the offices for Dairyman’s Co-op. Covering three city blocks (22 acres), the complex includes the one-story headquarters building and four plants. One of these is the largest milk processing plant west of the Mississippi River.

I get a warm welcome and a fascinating three hour tour of the complex courtesy of Gary Gilman, Senior Vice President. The Co-op ships milk to Guam, sends yogurt to Mexico and makes butter and cheeses for customers on the East Coast. This is no mom and pop operation—revenues total over $500 million.

On my tour I sample—fresh off the assembly line—a pint of drinkable strawberry low-fat yogurt, a pint of Yoplait’s strawberry-banana bash Trix and a carton of chocolate milk. I ask Gilman, "when do we get to the ice cream section." He laughs and tells me the Co-op doesn’t make ice cream at this facility.

I also get to climb up and see inside one of the trucks transporting raw milk to the plant. I watch the driver running samples of milk through a battery of tests. I think I see and do everything but milk the cow.

It has been raining for 10 days in a row. Gilman says rain is very stressful to cows, which means less milk output.

In and around Bakersfield...

Here’s a piece of Bakersfield trivia—population 180,000. Though Bakersfield is in Kern County, which is one of the nation’s top agricultural producers, in Bakersfield oil is king. Only three states claim more oil reserves than Kern County. Hundreds of oil derricks dot the flat landscape. Also, Bakersfield is home to the world’s largest ice-cream plant—owned by Nestle.

Calcot, Ltd.

This is the third cotton co-op I’ve visited and it’s the biggest of the big three. Its revenues in 1992 were $721 million. The other two biggies are Staplton co-op (Mississippi) and Plains co-op (Texas).

Calcot is five miles east of downtown Bakersfield in an industrial area. It’s not what you’d call a nice part of town. Behind the headquarters building (built in the 1950’s) are 56 warehouses for storing cotton. This is the largest under-roof storage system in the US.

Brenda Turner, Communications Director, tells me they have 30 employees at headquarters but, during cotton picking season, that number jumps to 140. The Board of Directors meets in a large no-frills room with chairs placed in theater-style seating. Seems like a necessary arrangement when you have 53 members on the board.

Riding in and around rainy Santa Barbara...

Going down a side street I happen to pass the outlet store for Magellan’s. This mail order catalogue firm specializes in accessories for international travel. I know of them because I’ve somehow gotten on their mailing list. I stop to talk with owner and founder John McManus. I ask him what’s the most unusual item Magellan’s carries. His answer: Le Funelle. He explains it’s for women who travel internationally and want to avoid filthy public toilets. Le Funelle allows women to stand when nature calls.

Down the road in Ventura...

Kinko’s Copies

Privately-held Kinko’s, makes my list of companies to visit because of something I saw in one of their stores. They have these comment cards—you know the kind restaurants use, asking guests to comment on the food and service? I noticed the return address on Kinko’s card said: Paul Orfalea, Chairperson of the Board. I figure someone who called himself "Chairperson of the Board" must do things a little differently. I also want to know how they came up with the name Kinko’s.

I find Kinko’s headquarters is in an light industrial area about three miles from downtown Ventura—an ocean front community of 75,000 people, 60 miles north of Los Angeles. A lemon orchard extends around part of the property. I also see a large baseball field and a child-care center.

The receptionist knows who I am. I guess they don’t get many visitors on bicycle in the pouring rain. The company has one of those Apple Computer Welcome Boards in its lobby. The Board greets me with this message, "Welcome Paul Wolsfeld," when I walk in.

While I wait for Maura Donaghey, Communications Administrator, to meet with me, I see something I’ve never seen before in a corporate headquarter’s lobby—a large Lego play set for kids (or is it for adults?)

Donaghey joins me and I ask about lemons. She tells me employees get to pick the lemons off the trees. There’s also a basketball court, volleyball court, fitness center and walking track to go along with the football/baseball field.

"Who gets reserved parking?" I ask. "Only employees who carpool," answers Donaghey.

The company was founded 23 years ago in Santa Barbara. So how did it get its name? I want to know. Paul Orfalea, Kinko’s founder and CEO, used to hang out with a group of friends who had strange nicknames. One was called Noodles and Paul’s name was—you guessed it—Kinko.

Orfalea’s corner office contains many interesting items. On one wall there’s a collection of about 50 stock certificates of big corporations; there’s also a bronze bust of Beethoven, four antique adding machines, a stereo system, a picture of President Bush, and a picture of "Kinko" from his hippie days back in the sixties. This picture shows Orfalea and his buddies at the beach, standing in front of one of those Volkswagen buses popular with surfers.

Speaking of pictures, the oil painting hanging in the hallway outside Orfalea’s office is a picture of his mom.

Passing through the lobby I spot a local newspaper story about the company posted on a bulletin board. According to this story Kinko’s Copies has over $150 million in revenues and over 500 stores, including stores in Canada and Japan. Most of their stores are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The company often locates its stores near college campuses.

The company was founded in Santa Barbara but had to move to Ventura because Santa Barbara wouldn’t allow them to build a building this big. Many employees still live in Santa Barbara and commute the 30 miles each way. Donaghey says many love the drive that takes them along Pacific Coast Highway—oceanview the whole way.

Lost Arrow Corporation

Privately-held Lost Arrow Corp., with $120 million in revenues, is the parent company of Patagonia—an upscale outdoor clothing manufacturer. The company—founded 20 years ago—sits on its original site, a former meatpacking plant about five blocks from the Pacific Ocean.

While riding through the parking lot I notice several signs that say: caution children playing. Then I see a large playground for kids plus a half dozen picnic tables. This company has, not one, but two on-site child care centers.

I meet with Karen Palone. She doesn’t have a title on her business card but she does Public Relations among many other things. Here, like Bloomberg L.P., nobody has titles on their ~P / 22 business cards—even CEO, Kristine McDivitt.

This company seems very different. Maybe it’s all the wood. The stairways in the three-story, 30,000 square-foot building are wood and so are the open beams all throughout the place.

The large open work areas upstairs make it difficult to tell the bosses from the workers. There are no offices or cubicles and everyone has identical desks. At first, when Palone shows me CEO McDivitt’s "office" I think she’s joking. McDivitt’s "office" consists of a desk located only a foot away from three other employees’ desks. McDivitt’s bulletin board has a poem by Walt Whitman alongside a poster of Nicaragua. A tea kettle and an issue of "New Republic" magazine sit on her desk.

The proximity of the ocean must explain the surf boards I see leaning on several desks.

This is the company for anyone who likes working with women. Of the 550 employees in the company, 356 are women. Forty-five percent of the firm’s officers are women; three of four vice presidents are also women. Yvon Chounard, the company’s founder, is still the Chairman, but he has the same desk as everyone else, and sits right in the midst of the other employees.

Eating in the company’s cafeteria reminds me of eating in a commune. Want cereal? No individual serving packages here. Instead, cereal eaters pour from several family-size cereal boxes on a table, just like home. Want carrot juice? Employees help themselves from a cooler containing all kinds of organic drinks. Want a hamburger? Go someplace else because the cooks here only make vegetarian meals. Kids from the two child-care centers eat with their parents in the cafeteria or at the picnic tables outside.

Patagonia gives 10% of its profits to over 200 environmental organizations. Patagonia recently challenged Kinko’s to a carpooling contest and "whipped them." Now, Kinko’s has challenged

Patagonia to a "blood" drive.