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E8. Lou Reed’s Nephew on Poorly Run Businesses
"On any given day, there are management consultants detailing theories of excellence that preclude the continued existence of these businesses. And yet …”
“You know what I enjoy?” Lou Reed’s Nephew asked me the next day. He arrived, refreshed, via the drugstore across the street, clutching a wrinkled plastic bag of passion fruit-infused waters and protein bars that tasted like birthday cake.
“I have yet to identify a pattern,” I admitted.
“A poorly run business.”
“You have one in mind?”
“I won’t name names, but there is something special about a business that does nothing right yet persists. Stock is strewn in the aisles and often remains unpacked. The piped-in music fades to static and no one notices. Mysterious Band-Aids are stomped into the floors of these businesses, which are often branches of national brands that have hopelessly strayed from the rationalized systems envisioned at corporate HQ. Service is desultory and intermittent if not openly hostile. On any given day, there are management consultants—perhaps in this very building—detailing theories of excellence that preclude the continued existence of these businesses. And yet …”
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“There they are. Monuments to free will. Well-run businesses hum with alienation by comparison. There is something sad about every ‘team member’ or ‘associate’ who disappears into the brand whole, don’t you think? Give me an angry, incompetent employee, for at least that person is free.”
“You are being glib.”
“Yes,” Lou Reed’s Nephew said. “But also sincere. Last week I was watching a show where they send someone loud and practical to fix terribly run businesses. In this case, the terribly run business was a pirate-themed bar, which was filthy and despairing and losing money hand over fist.”
“It was. An awful business. So, this guy comes in and explains that they’re doing everything wrong; that their business is a bad idea, poorly executed.”
“How did they take it?”
“They never take it well, but this crew took it especially hard. They really enjoyed pretending to be pirates.”
“In any case,” Lou Reed’s Nephew continued. “The expert changed everything. He did demographic surveys. He revamped the menu. He installed software and implemented ‘best practices’ everywhere. And he renamed the place—I am not kidding—‘Corporate Bar & Grill.’”
“Not very piratey. How did it go?”
“Great, in a sense. Business boomed, but you could feel the joy leaking from the pirates. Then something amazing happened.”
“A postscript came up and reported that the employees—despite their success, despite their hard-won professionalization—had turned the place back into a disgusting pirate bar. I thought I was going to cry.”
I thought he was going to cry telling me about it.
“The courage to be that unprofitable,” he said. “It stirs me.”