On the road in Iowa
From Austin, Minnesota, I made my way south toward Des Moines, Iowa. Not too long after leaving Austin, I quit seeing dead frogs in the road. Riding from the Twin Cities to Austin, I had seen thousands and thousands of dead frogs along the sides of the roads. The frogs were never in the middle of the roads but, on the sides. How come I never saw any get hit by passing cars and trucks? How come the dead frogs were never flattened or squashed? Were the frogs trying to cross the roads or was it a mass suicide? Hmmm.
Soon after entering Iowa, I passed through the small town of Carpenter. It's the kind of town where, if you rode your bike through and blinked, you'd miss the place. The day I went through there was a bake sale in the town hall. What a sight! Table after table of delicious-looking cookies, cakes, pies and jams. Standing behind the tables were grandmother-types that looked like they could cook up a storm. I waddled out about an hour later after stuffing my backpack and face with goodies. Carpenter is also where I chased six turkeys for about half a mile down a two-lane country road. When I would ring my bell, the turkeys would either freeze on the spot or run crazily into each other. I hope they were somebody's farm turkeys and not indicative of the smarts wild turkeys have.
Though it didn't contain any of the companies on my list, Des Moines was on my list of places to see because of its being the state capitol, the largest city in Iowa (population 250,000), and one of the major processing centers for processing new subscription orders for national magazines. Other than the State Capitol grounds being ablaze with some of the most beautiful gardens I've seen on my trek, the city seemed to have the blahs. Des Moines was so uninteresting; it became the sight of my first ever attempt at hitchhiking. Here's what happened: It was 4:00 p.m. and I was ready to check into a motel near the freeway. My schedule was tight and tomorrow I needed to make Omaha, Nebraska, about 125 miles away. It had rained every day for the past 8 days and the forecast called for more of the same. With nothing to lose and a whole day to gain, I stood next to my bike on a freeway on-ramp a few miles from downtown Des Moines. After about 45 minutes, a car finally slows down and pulls over toward me. It's one of those small Chevy Chevettes. There was no way my bike and I could fit into the car, so I figure the guy probably wants to ask me for directions. The car stops next to me and I wait about 10 seconds for him to lean over and roll down the passenger window so we could talk. Tired of waiting, I lean down and peer over to the driver and he's got his pants down and he's masturbating! I yell, "You sick jerk!" as he floors the engine and drives off. It took me a minute to remember I was in Iowa, "America's Heartland." I ended up checking into a motel room, got up at 5:00 a.m. the next morning and rode the 125 miles to Omaha in the wind and rain.
On the road in Omaha, Nebraska
Mutual of Omaha
The Home Office building of Mutual of Omaha was built in 1940 and employed 613 people; now, there're over 10 buildings with over 1.8 million square feet of office space and over 7,100 employees. It wasn't hard for me to find headquarters because several of the buildings sported giant emblems of their familiar logo/trademark-the Indian Chief. One building had emblems 22 feet in diameter on each side.
Joel Blobaum, Media Relations, met me in the lobby and gave a quick tour of the place. They're really proud of their underground building; it's a three-level underground structure topped by a massive glass dome. It was built in 1980 and has 190,000 square feet. They give tours of the building (which includes a Wild Kingdom Exhibit). Underground tunnels connect many of the buildings at Mutual thus, eliminating the problems of crossing the busy public streets and the winter weather. As I was being shown around, I noticed a lot of the men and women wearing western clothes (cowboy clothes). The more we walked around, the more I was beginning to think Omaha was a hick town. I mean, cowboy clothes at the headquarters of a big insurance company? At the end of my tour, Blobaum asked me if I had any questions and I said, "Yes, just one. I've been visiting corporate headquarters of billion dollar companies and I have to admit yours is the most casual dress I've seen. Does your company have any kind of a dress code policy?" Blobaum laughed and said, "Oh, I should have told you, this week is Rodeo Days in Omaha and employees are allowed and encouraged to wear western wear."
ConAgra leases space in a red brick and glass building in downtown Omaha. Their name and logo sit atop the good-looking 15-story structure. The owner of the building is the State of California Employee Income Trust. ConAgra is decentralized company, which would explain why a company with almost $10 billion in revenue has a corporate headquarters staff of only 230 people. If you eat frozen TV dinners like I do, you'll probably recognize the brand names of a lot of their frozen prepared foods: Banquet, Armour Dinner Classics, Mortons, Patio and Chun King. I met with Janet Richardson, Administrator, Personnel & Office Services. I wasn't able to see the CEO's office or boardroom because it was the day before the annual stockholders meeting.
Looked through ConAgra's annual report. Did you know ConAgra markets tires, is a specialty retailer, a major producer of formula feed and feed additives, a leading distributor of crop protection chemicals, a leading producer of frozen prepared foods, markets and is a leading producer of branded, processed red meats, markets steaks by direct mail, a major producer of turkey products, a leading poultry producer, a producer of cheese, has a large seafood business, a leading flour miller, a major packager of private-label flour, the largest publicly-held merchandiser and exporter of grain, a leading commodities futures brokerage, markets and manufactures preserves, jellies, peanut butter and syrups, a leading merchandiser of feed ingredients and manufactures and markets pet accessories? Neither did I.
InterNorth was the next company on my list to visit. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and found the place practically deserted. InterNorth and Houston Natural Gas had merged and their corporate headquarters was now in Houston. (Later, the name of the company would change from HNG/InterNorth to Enron.) Well, this was a first for me. I wondered how many times this would happen before my trek was over.
I was grabbing some lunch in downtown Omaha when I remembered Berkshire Hathaway and its famous CEO, Warren Buffett, were located here. Berkshire Hathaway only had sales of over $900 million and wasn't big enough to be on my list (the cut-off for publicly-held companies was $1.2 billion), but, I had been a big fan of Buffett and had read many articles about him. Buffett was worth hundreds of millions of dollars and I had read where he brown bagged it in the office. It was lunchtime and what the heck! Berkshire Hathaway is headquartered in Kiewit Plaza, a not-too-fancy office building a couple of miles from downtown. As I came off the elevator, I noticed a plaque on the wall announcing Berkshire Hathaway and it listed several of the officers. To the right of the plaque was a brown wooden door and above the door is a closed-circuit security camera and to the left of the door is a buzzer. I pressed the buzzer and a woman's voice says, "Can I help you?" I said, "I'd like to see Mr. Buffett." The voice says, "He's not in." I said, "Oh, I'm just passing through town and I thought he might be eating lunch in his office." The voice says, "He's out of the country." I said, "Could I have your latest annual report?" There was silence for about 30 seconds and then the door opened up slightly and a hand reached out with an annual report. I grabbed the annual report, the hand vanished and the door closed. I entered the elevator shaking my head and muttering, "This is how a company with almost a billion dollars in revenue receives people? As I was leaving the plaza area outside the building, several guys who were eating their lunch, asked me where I was riding to or from on my bike. We got to talking and they told me they worked for Peter Kiewit Sons, Inc. and wanted to know why their company wasn't on my list. I told them I remembered coming across their construction company in the course of my research but, had left them out because they weren't big enough or were foreign-owned. One of the fellows gave me an edition of "Kie-Ways", the company newsletter. Found out the building, Kiewit Plaza, was built in 1961 and it looked it. The building is headquarters for Peter Kiewit Sons, Inc. and Berkshire Hathaway.
Next big stop for me was Lincoln, Nebraska (population 180,000). No companies for me to visit but, it was the capital city and home of the University of Nebraska. Rain was still following me wherever I went and now I was in tornado country. Do you know what it's like to ride in heavy rain, on strange roads with lightning, thunder AND tornado warnings? From what I was told, the 400-foot tower of Nebraska's Capitol makes it the tallest capitol in the United States. There's a plush new hotel in downtown Lincoln called, "The Cornhusker", which, I found out is owned by David Murdock, the super wealthy businessman from Los Angeles who hails from Lincoln, Nebraska. Checked out the University of Nebraska campus. As a side project, I'm visiting most of the major university and college campuses to compare them as far as: who has the nicest/worst grounds, best/worst building architecture, best/worst off-campus commercial areas, etc. Football was in season and I rode over to check out the football stadium. Saw some of the Cornhuskers practicing; those guys are HUGE. The football facilities at University of Nebraska were extensive and first-rate. I had heard about some colleges having football factories but, unless you see it with your own eyes.... I also noticed a lot of the football players drove-up to the football practice in new sports cars. How can all these players afford new cars?