On the road in Richmond and southern Virginia

Chesapeake Corporation

Andrew Kohut, Chief Financial Officer-Chesapeake Corporation, meets with me in his 22nd floor office not because he's the numbers guy but, because he's an avid cyclist. This paper and packaging company with 1992 revenues of $888 million, net income $14 million, occupies the top floor in this downtown Richmond office building.

The company's located here because it was founded and still has a plant in nearby West Point, Virginia in 1918. Fifty employees work on the this the top floor plus half of another floor.

CEO Fox has a great view of the James River several blocks away. His organized corner office contains three plants, a PowerBook computer, a large antique surveyor's compass from the 1920's and a telescope. I look through the telescope to see where it's pointed. I started peeking through CEO's telescopes ever since I found the CEO of an Atlanta company with his telescope aimed at the penthouse apartment of Ted Turner and Jane Fonda atop CNN's headquarters. Susan Fairchild, Fox's secretary, says the telescope has come in handy over the years. From Fox's perch they've watched the Tour DuPont cycle by, several presidents motorcade past, seen bodies (living and dead) plucked from the raging James River and watched a train derailment.

Crestar Financial Corporation and Central Fidelity Banks

Though Richmond's population is only 200,000 (800,000 in the metropolitan area), these two regional bank holding companies help give downtown Richmond it's impressive skyline.

Crestar's (1992 revenues $1 billion) company-owned, 24-story headquarters was built in 1984. Cheryl Jenkins, Assistant Vice President, Corporate Communications walks me into CEO Richard Tilghman's office on the 23rd floor. I make note of Tilghman's stand-up desk and the box of Wheaties. I tell Karen Arrington, Tilghman's secretary, I've seen quite a few CEO's using stand-up desks and it's usually due to one of three reasons: bad back, navy background or, too antsy to sit for long periods. Arrington says it's the later. Why is Tilghman on the 23rd floor instead of the 24th? The executive dining rooms are on the top floor.

Nothing odd about the U-shaped table in the boardroom but, Vic Riseau's western bronze titled "A Grizzily Encounter" seems out of place in this southern city.

Central Fidelity Banks (1992 revenues $696 million, assets $8.7 billion) occupies the first 10 floors of a 22-story structure a block from Crestar. Though Central's name is atop the building it only leases space.

Peggy Cummings, Assistant Vice President and Manager-Investor/Public Relations, does something different from her counterpart over at Crestar. Instead of taking me UP the elevator to see the CEO's office we go DOWN to the second floor. CEO Carroll Saine uses a spiffy-looking roll-top desk in his walnut paneled office. The cigarette smoking Saine has a half-dozen tobacco pipes standing at attention on a coffee table, a baseball bat, a grandfather clock, oil paintings of old sailing ships lining the walls and, a collection of glass jaguars scattered about including several made out of crystal.

Who says secretaries aren't appreciated? CEO Saine as well as all the other executives on the second floor have no windows or outside views. Why? Saine mandated secretaries would have desks next to the windows and executives would occupy the interior of the floor.

Media General, Inc.

Offices for Media General (1992 revenues $578 million), a communications company with interests in newspapers, television stations, cable and newsprint, are in a blah-looking, four-story building built in the early 1960's. The downtown structure also houses it's flagship paper the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The company leases additional space in two other nearby buildings.

It's in a new nine-story building a block away in which I meet with Robert Pendergrast, Vice President-Corporate Communications. It turns out the view from Pendergrast's office and the furnishings are much nicer than the ones found in CEO Stewart Bryan, lll's office. The furniture in Bryan's small fourth floor corner office in the old building looks like it hasn't been touched since the 1960's. I count seven plants, over 200 books lining the bookcases, several maroon chairs and, a manual typewriter which I'm told Bryan still uses.

Ethyl Corporation

Well, thanks to Michael Whitlow, Manager-Corporate Communications, I don't feel like a complete idiot. When riding into Richmond I passed Ethyl's headquarters and mistook it for Virginia's capitol building. After all, the beautiful white colonial-style headquarters building DOES sit majestic-like on a bluff overlooking the James River near the fringe of downtown. Whitlow assures me I'm not the first one to make that mistake.

Primarily a chemical company, Ethyl Corporation (1992 revenues $3 billion) occupies a total of seven buildings in the fringe of downtown including a new seven-story, 215,000 square foot structure being completed across the street from the capitol, oops headquarters building.

The company's art collection, scattered throughout and limited to Virginia artists, is wide ranging and eclectic. The fitness center is impressive especially the indoor lap pool and indoor jogging track. Methinks the locals have a "thing" for U-shaped boardroom tables because it's the fourth boardroom I've seen in Richmond where the table is U-shaped.

James River Corporation

I mentioned Ethyl's headquarters being on a bluff overlooking the James River. Well, hugging the banks almost directly below Ethyl sits the two building headquarters of James River Corporation, a manufacturer and marketer of consumer products, food and consumer packaging and writing paper. Ever buy Nice 'N Soft, Marina or Quilted Northern bathroom tissue? How about Brawny paper towels or Dixie plates and cups? Those are some of James River's (1992 revenues $4.7 billion, net income $-427 million) consumer brands.

Waiting in the lobby to meet with Stephen Garnett, Vice President-Community & Media Relations, I become engrossed reading a letter on display. It's an actual letter George Washington sent to a Mr. John Hopkins of Richmond back in 1787. In it Washington is complaining of having to pay an assessment upon members of the James River Company, of which Washington is honorary president. Upon my finishing reading the letter, Garnett walks up and I say, "Wow!, does your company have prestigious lineage or what!" It's then that Garnett laughs and explains to me we're talking about two different companies. James River Corporation was founded in 1969. The James River Company was founded in 1784 to build the James River and Kanawha Canal, portions of which are still visible next to this building.

Garnett leads me on an extensive tour of the two buildings, the tallest being six stories, which includes a stop at a conference-size room with a plaque on the outside reading "Bloomberg Room". Walking in I find a BLOOMBERG, with I might add, plenty of room for installing more.

The restored brick building housing the executive offices is called the "Pump House" because way back when-it actually was a giant pump house.

CEO Robert Williams, thanks to huge picture windows, has an impressive panoramic view of the James River literally passing by his office. The treacherous rock-filled river is about half a mile wide and isn't made for navigating except for experienced kayakers. Williams has a very large wood paneled office. It has to be in order to fit in the two sofas, 10 swivel chairs and his large desk which I'm told was made in Scotland. The desk is about the size of two banquet tables put together.

Williams like to duck hunt and scattered about his office walls are two stuffed and mounted mallards, two canvas back, two black ducks plus, four brass ducks.

Nothing fancy about the boardroom. The boardroom table is comprised of half-a-dozen six foot tables pushed together to form OH NO!! another U-shaped table.

Seeing as how the company lost $427 million in 1992 I ask nice guy Garnett "how's business?". He answers, "lukewarm".

CSX Corporation

Snubbed in 1987, I'm back again to visit CSX Corporation, the giant international transporter with 1992 revenues of $8.7 billion, net income $20 million. It doesn't look good this time around either because Thomas Hoppin, Vice President-Corporate Communications, replied by letter in response to the introduction material I sent several weeks ago. Hoppin's letter reads, "We will not be able to accommodate your request, but we wish you well in your travels".

The 20th floor of a downtown high-rise filled with mostly law firms is home base for CSX. Stepping off the elevator you practically come face to face with the CSX receptionist sitting behind a desk. The lobby area is small with several displays of train paraphernalia (CSX owns several railroads). There's a door near the receptionist desk which leads to the offices.

After a five minute wait, this man comes bounding out the door and the receptionist announces it's Thomas Hoppin, VP-Communications (the one who sent the letter). I instinctively extend my hand for the traditional handshake but, Hoppin brushes past it towards the elevator and says, "let me escort you to the elevator". Upon pushing the button to summon the elevator he says, "I don't appreciate you talking to the local newspaper, someone should teach you some manners!" and seconds later I'm dispatched to street level.

Boy!, what the heck was that all about? I figure it out the next day by reading the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Several days earlier a business reporter for the Times-Dispatch interviewed me for a story. I mentioned the companies I'd be visiting and said if CSX rebuffed me, they would be only the third out 1,400 companies visited to do so twice. Evidently the reporter called Hoppin and asked why executives would not meet with me. Quoting from the Richmond Times-Dispatch (10/13/93) I give you Hoppin's reply to that question: ""Why should we?" asked Thomas E. Hoppin, a CSX spokesman. "It's basically appeared to us to be nothing more than a lark.""

Stopping by the Richmond public library I look up the word "lark" in Webster's New Collegiate dictionary: lark (n): a merry adventure. Looking up the word "adventure" it reads: 1 (a): an undertaking involving danger and unknown risks (b): the encountering of risks 2: an exciting or remarkable experience 3: an enterprise involving financial risk. Hmmm, can't argue with Hoppin's assessment.

Circuit City Stores, Inc.

Ten miles west of downtown Richmond on a 73-acre site sits the five story, 290,000 square foot headquarters of Circuit City Stores, the nation's largest specialty retailer of brand-name consumer electronics and major appliances.

Lissie Girard, Assistant to CEO Richard Sharp, gives me a great reception and extensive tour of the place. Though the building is only three years old, the company's tremendous growth has necessitated the construction of a halfway-completed 175,000 square foot structure several hundred yards from the first.

The 1,000 employees enjoy some impressive recreational perks including two tennis courts, two volleyball courts, a full-size indoor basketball gym with fold-out bleacher seating (also used for company pep rallies), softball fields and jogging trails which zigzag through the wooded grounds.

CEO Sharp has a sparsely furnished middle office on the top floor. Being a consumer electronics retailer I'm surprised to find Sharp's office void of any stereo, television, electronic gadgets or at the least; a radio. Hanging on a wall is a framed baton and beneath the baton are the following words from former CEO Alan Wurtzel: "For our future---I leave no whip to crack. Rather I pass this simple baton to make music & money." Picking up one of Sharp's business cards I note it's in Japanese on the back.

Owens & Minor Inc.

Founded in 1882 in Richmond, Owens & Minor (1992 revenues $1.2 billion) is the second largest wholesale distributor of medical and surgical supplies in the country behind Baxter.

Headquarters are in a corporate office park 12 miles west of Richmond. A very outgoing Hugh Gouldthorpe, Jr. says about 250 teammates (not employees) work in the four-story structure which features an atrium. What's Gouldthorpe's title? He hands me a business card which gives his title as "Cheerleader." It's an appropriate title because this man's enthusiasm is contagious! He finally relents and gives me another card which reads "Vice President-Quality and Communications."

Walking in the front entrance employees and visitors are greeted by a sign which is changed everyday. Today it reads, "Quality isn't expensive, it's priceless!" Stepping into the elevators you come face to face with a mirror and above it is a sign which reads, "meet the person responsible for quality"

CEO Gilmer Minor, the 3rd's, office is on the middle of the top floor with a view out the window of a man-made lake. The cigar smoking Minor's office contains a humidor, a Chinese silkscreen, four real plants, a computer, a picture of him with former president Gerald Ford, a Yankees baseball cap and, a picture of his favorite ballplayer-former Yankee great Joe Dimaggio.

Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Virginia

Back in the late 1960's Reynold Metals was the trendsetter in building and moving their headquarters to this area four miles west of downtown Richmond. In 1968 Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Virginia (1992 revenues $2.2 billion, net income $94 million) followed suit and built a large company-owned, four-story fortress-type building nearby. Though it houses 1,200 employees, the blah-looking Blue Cross/Blue Shield structure is showing its age.

Geez, you can't even enter the main lobby without a security guard buzzing you in the doors. I meet with Ronald Nash, Senior Vice President-Corporate Services, in a conference room-all of which are named after Virginia people or cities (Williamsburg room, Jefferson room etc.)

CEO Norwood Davis has a second floor middle office. Being a sailor explains the pictures of ships hanging on the walls and McDonnell-Douglas letting him ride in a F-15 reveals the reason for the picture of the fighter plane. His view? Most people would call it lousy, but not me. Davis can see a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop a block away, which is home to the world's best glazed donuts! (See sidebar on Krispy Kreme)

(Sidebar) Why am I so ga-ga over Krispy Kreme, a regional donut shop operation based in Winston-Salem, NC? Here's how it works: besides serving donuts to walk-ins, each shop makes donuts which are boxed, distributed and sold in surrounding area grocery stores. Via large picture windows, customers can watch the donuts being made in the back and then carried along conveyor belts to be boxed. So what's the big deal? It's timing your visit to coincide with the still-hot, glazed donuts coming off the conveyor belts. The taste is unbelievable!

Western Virginia

Heading west from Richmond takes me through some of the most beautiful countryside in the US. Though Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia, and Presidents Thomas Jefferson & James Monroe it's also home to Suds laundromat, which makes it into my Laundromat Hall of Fame. Having to do laundry every seven days is one of the low-lights of traversing the country on a bike. What makes this laundromat Hall of Fame material? Allowing people to smoke in Laundromats is my biggest peeve. What's the use of washing your clothes clean and fresh when the ugly stench of tobacco gets on 'em when you take 'em out of the dryer? Anyway, Suds allows no smoking, the place is spotless, completely carpeted, the washers and dryers are new, there's an attendant on duty who believe it or not also operates a small deli. Tables to eat sandwiches and study are scattered about, a big screen television as well as a large selection of magazines help pass the time.

Riding through Natural Bridge, Virginia I stop to see the Natural Bridge, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It's 215 feet high (higher than Niagara Falls), 40 feet thick and the arch itself has a span of 90 feet between the walls. Route 11, the road I'm traveling, actually passes over the arch. Here's a piece of trivia: Thomas Jefferson (who evidently saw its potential as a tourist attraction) acquired it from King George 111 of England in 1774. Here's a quiz for you: Natural Bridge is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the Modern World as well as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the New World (meaning the United States). Name the others in the US.

Can't mention this area of Virginia without including the nearby 19th-century, beautiful historic town of Lexington (population 7,000), home of Washington & Lee University and Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Lots of history and friendly people in this town.

Bassett Furniture Industries

Is Bassett Furniture Industries (1993 $473 million) named after Bassett, Virginia or is it named after the Bassett family? Thanks to the inflexibility of Eddie White, Assistant Director of Personnel, I don't find out for sure.

Bassett, VA, population probably less than 100, is one of those sleepy, one stop-light towns. The address for this furniture maker is simply, "Route 57", which is the main and only drag through town.

The four-story headquarters building painted white with ugly blue trim sits right across the street from the railroad tracks which run through downtown. A huge Bassett Furniture factory is a mile down the road. A plaque on a lobby wall states the structure was built in 1961. The lobby is spartan except for a crescendo and a four-drawer chest (both Bassett products), Actually the insides and outside of the building make you feel like you're in a 1960's time warp because it looks like nothing has been touched since then. I spot two other plaques commemorating two brothers with the last name of Bassett and their contributions to the company. Aha! Thanks to this information I'm assuming the town was named after the Bassett family.

I'm directed down the hall to a room filled with cubicles and while waiting, look through magazines such as Country Living, Traditional Home and Southern Living. After an hour, Eddie White- Assistant Director of Personnel, greets me and says I've arrived two days earlier than the stated dates on my introductory material sent several weeks earlier. I'm told I'd have to come back in two days. No amount of pleading helps me with this guy. Usually I get treated warmly when visiting companies in places off the beaten path but, not here.

E.R. Carpenter (Richmond) Headquartered in brick colonial-style buildings. Guy I met with wouldn't show me anything past lobby.

Helig-Meyers (Richmond) Furniture retailer with headquarters in office park. "No one has time to talk".

Tultex Corporation (Martinsville) Lousy treatment from this textile company in dying town.

Dibrell Corporation

A few miles north of the North Carolina/Virginia border sits Danville, Virginia (population 53,000) home to Dibrell Corporation, 1992 revenues $1 billion.

Riding on a bumpy road made of bricks in the old tobacco warehouse district of downtown Danville leads me to Dibrell's four-story headquarters. Since two-thirds of the company's revenue is generated from the purchasing, processing and selling of leaf tobacco, being headquartered in one of their former leaf curing warehouses shouldn't come as a surprise.

Recently renovated from a warehouse to offices, the dark mahogany-wood paneling in the lobby as well as the mahogany staircase are gorgeous. Even the bathroom off of the lobby is sumptuous with its black fixtures, gold trim AND one of those old fashioned long-keys which you turn to lock the door. What I don't like are the two receptionists puffing away on their cigarettes. It's definitely looks tacky and projects a "I don't care if it offends you or not" attitude.

I have a great time visiting with John Hunnicutt 3rd, Vice President-Administration and Secretary, because he's the one who oversaw the renovation of this building AND, he's an avid cyclist.

Walking around, Hunnicutt explains the abundance of vases filled with fresh flower arrangements. I pipe up, Is it to cancel the tobacco smell? No. The other third of Dibrell's revenues stems from its position as one of the world's largest purchasers and sellers of cut flowers.

Dibrell owns and occupies five buildings in the area with a total of 400,000 square feet of space. Across the street another old tobacco curing warehouse is being renovated and converted to a company conference center. Dibrell has done a terrific in saving the exteriors of these brick buildings as well as little things in the insides such as case with the conference center: instead of trashing a 60-year old freight elevator, it's being kept intact and displayed as a piece of history.

Checking out CEO Claude Owen, Jr's first floor corner office I see no cigarettes, spot a computer, a big picture of Germany on a wall, a vase filled with cut flowers and last but not least, a picture of Owen wearing an Atlanta Braves uniform. Hunnicutt says Owen played in one of those "fantasy" baseball games.

Danville is 55 miles from the nearest Interstate (I-85) and the closest decent-size airport is in Greensboro, NC, which explains the company's Cessna Citation plane.

Landmark Communications

Norfolk (population 275,000) sits at the mouth of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. About a mile from downtown is the four-story building housing the offices of privately-held Landmark Communications, a media company with (according to Donald Patterson, Jr.-Executive Vice President) revenues of $450 million.

Headquarters is also the offices of its flagship paper; The Virginian-Pilot, second largest newspaper in the state. Not knowing anything about the company beforehand, I learn Landmark owns newspapers, radio and television stations AND the famous 24-hour cable television network: The Weather Channel. Many a night before falling asleep in my hotel room I've turned it on to get the weather lowdown for the next day.

For some reason I'm also astonished to learn Landmark owns Chicago magazine, one of the country's largest city magazines and Washingtonian, another city magazine covering the nation's capitol.

So, in an industry which has a reputation for giving me lousy receptions, how am a treated? Terrific! I first meet with E-VP Patterson, who turns me over to Vice Chairman Richard Barry, 3rd, who in turn introduces me to Frank Batten, Chairman, Head Honcho, the Big Cheese. As I poke around the easy-going Batten's small, plainly-furnished, no-frills corner office he says the sailing pictures are on the walls because he loves to sail. The large picture of Aspen, CO hangs on a wall because Batten has a home there.

I ask if it's possible for a tour of The Weather Channel studio and turns out it's located in Atlanta. Hey, which reminds me, I didn't see anybody at corporate tuned in to The Weather Channel.