Grrr-eat Places to Work?

Tom Peters

The question from a reporter was apparently straightforward: “What are the five greatest companies to work for?” Should I reach back to In Search of Excellence, or grab my dog-eared copy of The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America for guidance?

Not so fast. I don’t think there are any “great companies to work for.” By definition, all organizations tramp on individuality and demand some degree of conformity in order to turn out uniform products—saved souls, Boy Scouts with merit and merit badges or Compaq computers. All companies run over people, to varying degrees and depending on rank in the firm; companies with more than one employee are also highly “political” in one way or another.

Even if the “company” has only one employee (you!), it ain’t necessarily a picnic. Making enough profit to pay for room and board is a pressing issue. And there are higher-order problems: I’ve always thought poetry and mathematics were the two highest intellectual callings. But if those disciplines, necessarily practiced alone, represent the ultimate in freedom and free expression, how come so many poets and mathematicians go mad or commit suicide?

In short, all work, regardless of context and content, has its downs as well as ups—and usually more of the former than the latter. (Do you have as much trouble as I do with people who walk around perpetually smiling, telling you how much they love their jobs?) So let’s forget “great” companies, but forge ahead with my wholly subjective assessment of a premise that I doubt to begin with.

1. UPS. This huge, employee-owned company is surprisingly free of bureaucracy, and worries not a whit about pedigrees. (The Harvard MBA here will likely earn a frown, not slobbering sycophancy.) It pays darn well and those who flourish will have very healthy nest eggs at a remarkably early age. Wow!

Wow? If you liked Parris Island (the East Coast Marine Corp boot camp), you’ll just love UPS! In short, you gotta get the job done, fast, the UPS way—period. And there will be no shortage of folks to “help” you should you stray from the prescribed path.

This good news, bad news story has many parallels: Cleveland’s Lincoln Electric, steel-maker Nucor Corp, retailer Nordstrom. In these firms and others like them, incentives are sky high; promotion is based on merit; no bureaucrats get in your way. But there’s no room for the laid back or faint of heart.

2. Apple Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Esprit. They were once almost great places to work. HP in 1976, Apple in 1983, and Esprit in 1987 were on the move, pursuing a nifty dream that most bought into with abandon. They’re all OK or OK-plus to this day, surely a cut or two above the norm. But their “gee whiz” eras have given way to maturity—which eventually and inevitably does to organizations what it does to individuals; i.e., kills them. But if you catch outfits like these at the right time, they can be a real kick for five years. (Nobody should work anywhere more than five years anyway. Right?)

3. MCI. I like what I’ve seen of this company. It gets my highest accolade: “Not too shabby for a $6-billion-dollar firm.” From top to bottom, opportunities are plentiful; and the joint is remarkably non-bureaucratic. It has stayed feisty longer than most. Would I bet on it 10 years hence? Don’t be silly!

4. PepsiCo. This is one big company! And big and great don’t mix (even if I bought the idea of greatness). PepsiCo is not a scintillating place, by and large, for first-line workers. But it’s more or less the UPS for the managerial class. Enormous opportunities can come extraordinarily early; and the sky really is the limit. However, the fall from grace and the fast track can come in a flash and the pressure is always on—no long Kennebunkport vacations for PepsiCo managers.

5. The Body Shop. Did you catch the Inc. magazine cover story on the Body Shop? Nirvana. Supports the right causes. Provides lots of room for growth and initiative. Etc. Etc. But is it too good to be true? As I read and re-read the story I felt suspended in an enormous tub of honey. I couldn’t bear up under all the good news. It’s a little bit like those folks who smile all the time. Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream kings, also may belong in this elite—but perhaps suffocating—category.

6. Union Pacific Railroad. “You gotta be kidding!” Not quite. UPRR, Harley-Davidson, and a handful of others surely make the “one-heck-of-a-lot-less-awful-and-maybe-even-good-to-work-for” list. UPRR chief Mike Walsh nuked most of his bureaucracy and has given front-line people a lot of say in what goes on. Heaven on earth? Not yet. But no longer Dante’s inferno-on-rails, either.

7. Domino’s Pizza. Hey, hustling pizza’s no piece of pie. But (shades of UPS), o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y is the real name of these folks’ game. Unlike McDonald’s, you don’t have to be rich as the Rockefellers to get a franchise; the potential is boundless—and any and all are welcome to apply.

8. Millions of sole proprietorships. Sure a few poets and mathematicians stick their heads in ovens. Yes, most new businesses go belly-up within their first five years. But take it from me (and a few million others), there’s no boss quite like the face you see in the mirror. Working for yourself stinks as often as not; but if it only stinks that much—50 percent of the time—then, hey, what a deal!

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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