Want a tiny sampling of corporate
trivia gathered? Best Products (Richmond, VA), Davey Tree Expert
Company (Kent, Ohio) and Hardees (Rocky Mount, NC) have crystal
balls in their boardrooms. Legal & General Insurance, Prudential
Insurance and, Cookson Group (all headquartered in London) have
ghosts in their head offices. Safety- Kleen (Elgin, IL) has a
stuffed kangaroo in its lobby and Ebsco (Birmingham, AL) two
stuffed rattlesnakes in theirs. British Steel (London, England)
and Tetra Laval (Lund, Sweden) have real cannons guarding their
headquarters while Christian Salvesen PLC (Edinburgh, Scotland)
has a mounted harpoon gun protecting its grounds (Salvesen was
at one time the world's largest whaling company). Clothier Esprit
De Corps (San Francisco, CA), Greenpeace (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
and clothier Patagonia (Ventura, CA) serve only vegetarian food
in the company cafeteria. Though Toshiba Corporation (Tokyo,
Japan) has a spiffy fitness facility for the 10,000 employees
working in their 40-story headquarters, it contains no shower
facilities. Draegerwerk (Luebeck, Germany) has a deceased CEO
buried on its grounds. Jyske Bank A/S (Jutland, Denmark) is one
of only half-dozen companies visited, where everyone from the
CEO on down wears nametags. The business cards of the Vice-Chairman
of Toronto-Dominion Bank (Toronto, Canada) are in Braille. La-Z
Boy Inc. (Monroe, Michigan) raises pheasants behind their headquarters.
Elevators at Domino's Pizza (Ann Arbor, MI) are slow on purpose
to encourage exercise (in other words, using the stairs).
This section deals with how
I approached companies, the type of questions asked and, why
certain information was gathered. To learn how and why I came
up with this unusual odyssey click over to the "background"
The Advance Warning
So, I've ridden my bicycle around
for more than 20 years visiting over 4,000 of the world's biggest
companies and organizations. Is advance warning given of my arrival
or do I just show up unannounced? Jeez, I may be unorthodox but
give me a little credit for playing by the rules. Initially,
I sent the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) a postcard about 10
days before my anticipated arrival at the company. This was my
letter of introduction so to speak. As the trek progressed I
started enclosing newspaper write-ups with the postcards. I had
write-ups in a large number of newspapers including the "big
boys" such as USA Today, Wall Street Journal and, New York
Times. The front-page story in the Wall Street Journal back in
1987 went a long way in establishing credibility to my quirky
Giving companies only 10 days
notice of my pending arrival quickly proved to be flawed (see
section on "contact person") and later began giving
companies four weeks notice of my arrival. Imagine if you will
the obstacles that this presented to me. I had to anticipate
a month in advance where I was going and when I was going to
show up on a company's doorstep. Try doing this in Europe for
two years. I had never set foot on the continent and was totally
unfamiliar with roads, languages (I barely speak English), and
Below you'll see the contents
of the postcard:
I recently spent six years visiting
via bicycle the headquarters of the 1,400 largest companies in
the United States. The end result being a book on corporate America
I'm currently on a four-year
sequel: visiting via bicycle the 1,000 largest companies OUTSIDE
the United States.
Who has the biggest parking lot?
The nicest grounds? Most unusual corporate logo? Friendliest
receptionists? What's the view from the CEO's office? This is
the type of information being garnered.
I hope to meet with someone on
your staff who could answer my questions about your corporate
headquarters. My book is geared toward presenting the corporate
world in a positive light. This letter is to inform you of my
pending arrival and to thank you beforehand for any courtesies
extended to me. Enclosed are several news clippings concerning
my unusual trek.
I'll be in your area:
Sincerely, Paul Wolsfeld 5580
La Jolla Blvd. #23 La Jolla, CA 92037
Phone & Fax number: (619)
One of the biggest eye-openers
on this trek is the incredible lack of professionalism amongst
receptionists, especially in the United States. One would think
big companies would have personable, competent, professional
people running the reception areas. Not true. Many companies
seem to be clueless and evidently aren't aware of the impressions
their receptionists are projecting. The first person a visitor
comes in contact with is the receptionist. I can't begin to count
the number of times I approached a reception area only to be
ignored, made to feel unimportant or given one of those "whatdoyawant?"
looks by a receptionist. Then you have the ones eating, smoking,
gossiping on the phone or else reading a book and then acting
perturbed that you've interrupted them. When reading my stories
you'll notice I frequently mention receptionists and name names
(the very good as well as the bad).
Receptionists are an important
part of my project because they have the power to get me in to
see someone in the organization or else tell me to get lost.
Unfortunately this means having to kiss up to them. What am I
looking for in a receptionist? Appearance, manner, friendliness,
helpfulness and eye contact. By far, the friendliest receptionists
are found in Japan. I vividly recall my visit to Bally Corporation
in downtown Chicago. The receptionist was especially nasty and
I told my contact person about this. What was my contact person's
response? "Oh, I hope you don't mention it in your book.
The regular receptionist is out for a few days and she's only
a temporary". After I left I wondered how visitors are suppose
to know she's only a "temporary" and if management
knew the negative image she was projecting.
Contact people are so named because
they're the ones who ultimately end up with my advance material
(consisting of postcard and news clippings) sent to the CEO.
When starting this trek I assumed, by sending the advance material
to the CEO, it would eventually trickle down to the public relations
department. Not true. Lots of companies don't have public relations
departments. Many a time the advance material never leaves the
CEO's desk because he wanted to meet that "crazy American
going around the world on a bicycle". Since what I do is
so out of the ordinary many companies don't know where or to
whom I should be referred. This is where the Trickle-Down theory
comes into play: The CEO's office would pass my advance material
to someone else in the company hierarchy, who then hands it off
either vertically or horizontally along the company's flow chart,
who in turn, sends it trickling down. I learned quickly this
trickle-down process many times took weeks.
Here's a sampling of some of
the departments in various corporations that ended up with my
advance material: corporate communications, corporate affairs,
community affairs, security, building services, public affairs,
personnel, archives, international relations, media relations,
external affairs, legal affairs, marketing, and investor relations.
What am I looking for in my contact
person? Is he friendly? Guarded? Does he answer my questions?
Does he show interest in my project? Is his interest real or
feigned? Am I shown around? If he doesn't know answers to questions
does he offer to find them? Does he smoke in front of me without
asking if I objected? Does he make me feel welcome or more like
I was a pain in the rear?
Most companies, I think, understand
the limitations on traveling around on a bicycle. With only four
panniers (saddlebags), lugging a suit and tie around isn't an
option. I usually walk into a company's headquarters wearing
a polo-type shirt, cotton shorts (ironed) and Sperry Topsider
deck shoes (boating shoes). After explaining who I am and finding
out the name of my contact person, I ask to use a restroom and
then change into long pants. I always try to have long pants
on when meeting the "contact person". Walking into
headquarters wearing shorts let me test the reactions of the
receptionist and security people. Since I use a metal clipboard
for my questionnaire, in big cities I'm constantly be mistaken
for a bicycle messenger and whether they deserve it or not, bike
messengers are treated like second class people.
Security and Security Guards
You can imagine the stories I
have to tell about my encounters with security personnel. You
can also imagine the security precautions in place at many corporate
headquarters. In England, companies have to worry about the IRA,
in Germany the Red Army Brigade, in Spain it's the ETA, in Italy
the Mafia plus, untold dozens of other wacko organizations wanting
to create havoc and disruptions. Corporate headquarters in Spain
and Italy have machine gun toting security guards manning the
entrances. Interestingly enough, I found some of the tightest
security precautions at company headquarters in The Netherlands.
Why? Back in the 1980's, The Netherlands had serious problems
with its colonies in Indonesia resulting in terrorist activities
inside The Netherlands. Just about every company visited in France
required visitors to produce and then hand over your passport
for safe keeping while on the premises.
I see nothing wrong with companies
wanting to ensure their employees and guests have a safe and
secure working environment. Most companies try to be low-key
and discreet so as to not offend or make visitors ill at ease.
Then again, I've had my share of visits where the word "overkill"
would be appropriate.
Of course, I have horrific stories
to tell of encounters with security personnel in the United States.
High on the list is the particular nasty encounter at Walt Disney
Corporation (Burbank, CA) in which I was physically threatened.
While being given a tour of the boardroom at Great Western Savings
(Los Angeles, CA) guards burst into the room after being told
a suspicious-looking, backpack-toting man (me!) entered with
two employees. The head of security at Union Carbide's (Danbury,
CT) beautiful headquarters walked me back into the conference
room where we had been meeting, only to find two security guards
rifling through my backpack. The head of security started laughing.
Why? Every month his department runs a drill where they have
to locate a bomb in the huge building and they thought the unattended
backpack was it.
What kinds of questions did
I ask and what did I look for on my visits to companies?
One of the first items noticed
when arriving at a company's headquarters is whether they advertise
the fact they're there. Surprisingly, the headquarters of Federal
Express (Memphis, TN) was an unmarked building near the airport.
No outside signs let you know you've found the headquarters of
Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.
Mars, Inc. (McClean, VA), the super secretive, global purveyor
of candy bars, ice cream and other consumer goods, work out of
a plain, unmarked building located next to a gas station. On
the other hand, Black & Decker (Towson, MD), Firestone (Akron,
OH) and NCR (Dayton, OH) want the whole world to know because
they have big signs outside the front entrances with their names
and below their names, "World Headquarters".
Many corporations are located
in downtown of cities and many are not. One of my questions is/was,
How many acres does your headquarters encompass?
Domino's Pizza (Ann Arbor, MI) sits on 1,300 acres. Amway (Ada,
MI) occupies 390 acres, John Deere (Moline, IL) is located on
1,000 acres with more than half of that leased out cornfields.
Weyerhauser (Tacoma, WA) is situated on the outskirts of town
amidst 500 beautiful wooded acres. BASF ( Ludwigshafen, Germany)
and Bayer (Leverkusen, Germany) each reside on massive, company-owned
sites encompassing several square miles.
Another question asked, Do
you own or lease your headquarters? Believe it or not,
many of the world's biggest banks and insurance companies don't
own their headquarter complexes. I found that to be odd, especially
since they try to project an image of rock solid, long-term stability.
Any recreational facilities
at your headquarters?
You name it, companies
have it. Investment bank Hambros (London, England) has a grass
croquet court atop their head office in London's financial district.
General Accident (Perth, Scotland) has tennis & squash courts,
putting green, indoor pool, hockey field and a full-size basketball
Rifle ranges seem to be popular
with Commonwealth Bank of Australia (Sydney, Australia), Royal
Dutch Shell (London, England) and Pohjola Group (Helsinki, Finland)
amongst those partaking in target practice. Many companies have
their own golf courses DuPont (Wilmington, DE) and IBM (Armonk,
NY). In Finland just about every company visited had saunas,
though they're used just as much for business purposes. Nike
(Portland, OR) has bragging rights to one of the finest facilities
seen in the USA. Toshiba (Tokyo, Japan) has a fitness facility
but no showers. I asked what smelly employees are supposed to
do after working out. The answer: "go home". Employees
at Coldwater Seafood Corporation (Rowayton, CT) are entitled
to an hour of tennis EACH day at a tennis club down the street.
Is smoking allowed and
does the CEO smoke?
There's a definite correlation as to whether a company allows
smoking and if its CEO smokes. As a general rule of thumb, if
the CEO smokes; it's permitted in the building. In Spain I walked
out of several companies after being stuck in waiting rooms filled
with the stench of tobacco.
How many parking spaces
do you have and who gets reserved parking? At Honeywell
(Minneapolis, MN) there're over 2,500 parking spots. The newest
employees park farthest away and, the longer you work there the
closer you get to park. Many companies have open parking, which
means if the CEO arrives late he has to hunt for a spot like
everyone else. Of course at most companies, senior executives
get driven to work.
Do you have any corporate
aircraft? This is probably the most sensitive question
asked. General Electric (Fairfield, CT) wouldn't answer
the question because "it's classified". Wal-Mart (Bentonville,
AR) had seven, Sony (Tokyo, Japan) several, AlliedSignal (Morristown,
Does your conference or
meeting rooms have names? At Apple Computer (Cupertino, CA) rooms
are named after television soap operas, at SAS Airlines (Stockholm,
Sweden) meeting rooms are named after birds. National Car Rental
(Minneapolis, MN) names rooms after dead philosophers. Silicon
Graphics (Mt. View, CA) occupies a campus-like setting with a
quite a few buildings. The people working in each building get
to name the meeting rooms. In the executive building, rooms are
named after movies. How would you like to give a talk in the
room named, "The Abyss?" Asda (Leeds, England), a supermarket
chain, names all its conference rooms after fruits & vegetables
except for one. The sole exception being the "Big Table"
room. In this room stands a five-foot tall table sans chairs.
The idea being meetings don't last long here since there's no
place to sit.
How far are you from downtown? TRW's beautiful headquarters used to
be an old estate and there're almost three miles of jogging trails
on the 135-acre site. So? The company uses a Cleveland address
but it's 15 miles to downtown. Occidental Petroleum has a Los
Angeles address but, it's 10 miles from downtown.
Do you have a cafeteria,
how ís the food, can you sit outdoors and eat, what ís
the view? How would you like working at 3M (Minneapolis,
MN) and having your choice of eating lunch at one of 17 cafeterias
on the premises? Free lunch seems to be a big employee perk in
London, England with British Petroleum, Christie's, Royal Dutch
Shell, P&O and Whitbread being on that list. Lots of companies
stick the cafeteria in the windowless basement, in Germany most
are located on the top floors above the senior executives. Do
company executives eat with the masses? The majority of the time
it's a resounding "no". Who's got the best cafeteria
food? Nestle (Vevey, Switzerland), one of the world's biggest
food companies, easily makes the Top 5 list.
Do you have a corporate
art collection? Wow!
The art I saw was simply amazing. Japanese insurer Yasuda Fire
& Marine paid $50 million for Van Gogh's "Sunflowers"
(the most ever for a single painting) and it holds center stage
on the 42nd floor of their Tokyo office. Daimler-Benz
(Stuttgart, Germany) has a massive Andy Warhol piece overlooking
their huge boardroom table. One thing I've found to be true when
visiting headquarters: the higher you go in a building, the nicer
the art. In other words, the good stuff is kept on the executive
Why are you located where
you are? Many times
it's because that's where the company was founded. AMR (American
Airlines) used to be in New York City. It's now in Dallas, TX
due to Dallas being their biggest hub. MCI is in Washington,
DC because the offices of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission)
lie three blocks away. Atlantic Richfield moved from New York
City to Los Angeles (instead of San Francisco) because it would
have been second banana to Chevron. Lots of times a company is
located in a particular place for no other reason than the CEO
What ís your commute
time? In big cities
that question is sometimes answered in hours. One of my favorite
responses took place in Altdorf, Switzerland while visiting Datwyler
Holding. This picturesque town in the Alps was home to William
Tell, the guy who shot apples off of the heads of people. Anyway,
I ask my contact person about his commute time and he answers,
"15 minutes, it's a five-minute walk to the gondola and
a 10-minute ride to the top".
Can I see the CEO's office? What
did I look for when checking out the CEO's office? Is it a corner
office or middle office? Is the desk organized or cluttered?
What books or magazines are on the coffee table? Real or fake
plants? At Radex Heraklith (Vienna, Austria) the CEO's wife brings
him fresh flowers every Monday. What's the view? The CEO at Fort
Howard Paper (Green Bay, WI) looks out from his third floor window
onto an adjacent junkyard. The CEOs at Wetterau (St. Louis, MO)
and Lowes (N. Wilkesboro, NC) didn't have views because their
offices had no windows. Think about it, these guys make hundreds
of thousands of dollars a year and yet, can't tell if it's snowing
or sunny outside! Is there a computer? Seven out of ten CEO's
DO NOT have computers. Any paintings or pictures hanging on the
walls? Any family pictures or personal effects on display? At
Industrivarden AB (Stockholm, Sweden), CEO Clas Reuterskiold
has a three-foot long stuffed alligator in his office. The CEO
at Novo-Nordisk, the world's largest producer of insulin (Copenhagen,
Denmark), keeps a skateboard in his office as well as a sign
which reads "no whining". The Chairman of BET (London,
England) has glass display cases in his office displaying part
of his collection of over 1,000 eggcup holders. CEO Wendelin
Wiedeking of Porsche (Stuttgart, Germany) proudly displays six
crayon drawings from his kids.
Do you have a boardroom?
Can I see it? Executives
at Penn Mutual Life Insurance (Philadelphia, PA) meet in a massive
boardroom featuring a 50-foot ceiling. Metropolitan Life Insurance
(New York City) easily makes my list of 10 most impressive boardrooms.
Wal-Mart (Bentonville, AR) doesn't have a boardroom. Steyr-Daimler-Puch
(Vienna, Austria) had 17 hunting rifles lying on their boardroom