The Workplace America Has Lost
A writer reflects on the honesty, kindness and sense of community that formed her business values
I used to hear them on their phones outside my office door.
Their names were Marge and Eileen, and they represented the customer service department of the clothing manufacturing company for which I handled marketing and public relations.
“How’s that grandchild of yours?” Marge would ask; she was in her 40s at the time, heavyset and full of emotion, with no children or husband.“Did you like the brisket recipe I gave you? It was my grandmother’s Passover version.”
Eileen, divorced and living with her mother, had a sarcastic wit. “Are you ordering two dozen more bras today?” she’d shout into the phone. “I thought I told you last week that one dozen wasn’t going to be enough. And by the way, someday I will get to Connecticut and visit you. I have never really left Ohio.”
It was the late 1980s, and this was the second job of my career. The company was family-owned, and the founder, a tiny 80-year-old of few words named Frederick DiCiccio, still wandered the halls outside my office. He’d founded the company in the early 1940s. Actually, he didn’t really even start the company — it was given to him.
At 16, Frederick had been a stowaway from Italy, hunkered down in the ship’s cargo deck. He landed in America with no knowledge of the language and found a job sewing coats in a factory in Cleveland, Ohio, that was owned by an elderly woman. Frederick soon became her best and hardest worker, and when she retired, she offered him the business in lieu of all the back pay he was owed; Frederick had never missed a day of work or taken a vacation.
The Second World War came, and with it rations, specifically government assistance to pregnant mothers and manufacturers of related items — including nursing and maternity bras. Frederick borrowed railway ticket–collector punches and used them to make the holes to support the laces that women used to tighten their corseted bras. Soon, he had a completely different business model.
In a videotape I made of Frederick, he tells of the day he took a bus to New York to show those samples to a Macy’s lingerie buyer. “I sat in the lobby all day, and she walked past me,” Frederick says, looking directly into the camera. “I never said a word and spent the night on the couch. The next day, she told me to come into her office [he motions in the video with his hand], and I gave her six samples,” he says with the gleam still in his eye.
“She studied each one just like this,” he says, reenacting her movements. “And then she put three in her lap. Those three were the first products I sold to a big department store!”
By the time I arrived in 1989, this company was the largest niche manufacturer of SKUs (stock keeping units) to the maternity and breastfeeding markets. Our customer base included thousands of small maternity stores and chains, plus mid-sized and major department stores across the United States. We sold through an independent sales rep, a team of old-timers with names like Seymour and Al who’d spent their entire careers prowling the garment district of New York and other areas of the country peddling women’s lingerie. I loved these men. They knew generations of store buyers by name, could draw flowcharts of each business from memory, and had large personalities and even larger stories to go with them. Their people skills were their currency.
And we made the items in America, at two brand new manufacturing facilities in rural south central Illinois.
One of my first duties as a 25-year-old director of public relations was to organize a company-wide sales meeting near the manufacturing facilities in Effingham, Illinois. I remember swooping in over the cornfields in a tiny plane, renting a car, and checking into the Thelma Keller Convention Center (really just a Ramada Inn with a fancy name).
Thelma Keller, too, had a story, and it began with a one-pump gas station she and her husband Lolami owned and from which she served the best barbecue sandwiches in the region. From there came a gas distribution business and this convention center, inspired by Thelma’s passion for cooking and treating each guest as special.
In the 1990s there were dozens if not hundreds of manufacturing facilities in Illinois. And the convention center, though not fancy but just right, provided many of them with lodging and rooms for sales meetings. The grand dame Thelma was probably in her 80s, and she was at the front desk when I checked in late in the evening a few days in advance of our meeting. She was a wisp of a thing with a big smile and auburn hair piled into a beehive on top of her head; she never stopped moving. And when I came down for breakfast early the next morning, there she was again at the hostess stand.
But Thelma wasn’t the only kind and gracious hard worker in south-central Illinois. The area was teeming with them, which I soon found out when I visited our factories. From the plant managers to the assistants to the maintenance man sweeping up with a broom, I was greeted with hugs and offers of pie the very first time I visited those facilities and during the times I would visit them in the years that followed. There’d always be homemade food that someone had brought in to share in the lunchroom. There were stories of babies, and parades, and rotary meetings. There were dinners at people’s homes; I’d be invited as a guest to sit around their family dinner table. There were town diners with some of the best food I’d ever eaten then or since.
Our facilities didn’t just produce garments, they housed mini-communities of their own, filled with fellowship and humanity.
This was rural America, and since I was raised in the suburbs of larger US cities, this was a completely new experience for me. I loved visiting those plants because they were microcosms of American manufacturing in its heyday.
The sales meeting came and went — my first project a resounding success — but more importantly it was a perfect segue into what would be the next six years of my life.
A year or two after I started at the company, Walmart, Target, and other big mass merchandising chains came calling. They were just in their infancies. But how could small manufacturers like us say no? If we refused to work with them, some other enterprise would get the business, and we had people to employ.
I remember all 25 years of me telling the company owner that I predicted we’d see a drastic shift in our customers. And we did. By the time I left, our top three accounts made up 80 percent of our business; Walmart was dialing us collect and recommending manufacturers overseas to make us more efficient and hold down our prices.
Marge and Eileen spoke with fewer and fewer people by phone outside my office. Walmart and Target began to place orders via the computer instead of through people.
I think back to that time often, for I believe that in those six short years I witnessed both the glory days of American manufacturing and the beginning of its downfall. I remember the people. I remember their hearts. When I came to New York for market week, I remember Seymour Klein with his distinct New York accent, in his disheveled oversize suit, schlepping his worn suitcase full of bra samples around New York. I remember his kind eyes, easy laugh, shock of gray hair, and his attempt to ease his young daughter into his business near the end, not realizing that the end was something much bigger than his own retirement.
I remember the silencing of the phones outside my office, as mom and pop retailers closed — no match for Walmart and Target — who now sold our wares under their own private labels (leaving me less to promote and weakening the brand name our proud founder had once scratched out on a notepad).
Frederick died during the time I was employed there. He was a humble man whose life was his work, as evidenced by the fact that the funeral guests consisted exclusively of family, employees, and factory workers. Yes, many traveled to Cleveland to attend this man’s funeral — a man they’d never met but respected. It was the grit and determination of this off-the-boat 16-year-old from Italy that allowed them to feed their families.
Will we ever have a period like this in America again? When people talk face to face while doing business instead of hitting “send” from their computers? When whole communities were employed at a few manufacturing facilities owned by actual Americans, and not some Brazilian conglomerate? Where you can not only trace the product you are assembling back to a real person, but also have the humanity and grace to travel 600 miles to attend his funeral?
I don’t think we will. But I feel honored and humbled to have been there. Because it formed me. I was a few years out of college and a year into my employment when I broke up with my controlling fiancé. When, for the first time in my life, I supported myself exclusively and found an apartment of my own.
An office-mate helped me sew curtains and sponge-paint my living room walls a deep shade of coral. Another colleague placed a bottle of wine on my desk on the day I moved in, giving me hope for a new beginning. The founder’s son took me aside and gave me a raise that day, too, just because he knew that moving into my own apartment came with a greater financial burden.
How lucky was I to land in the lap of that family-owned business at that point in history? That point in which humanity, resilience, and community modeled for me all that was right in this world. Even if it lasted just a few short years.
*** Names have been changed to protect privacy. But the Thelma Keller Conference Center remains. For more about Thelma click here.