Sunday, November 30, 2008

Stanford Business, Entry 14: Nike, PACCAR, Boeing, Amazon and Costco: Our Northwest Study Trip

Keeping up with our breakneck pace, we had our first out-of-town study trip last week, followed by the Stanford Thanksgiving break. I think I like the Stanford thanksgiving break a lot better than I liked the MIT break during my undergrad days; at Stanford, we got the whole week off.

This was (no doubt) so that we could catch up on the work for our final projects, since there's only one week of class left in the Quarter before... (drumroll)... Final Exams.

Of course we all studied very hard during this break (Well, honestly, most people started their vacation last weekend and took the whole week off; now we're struggling to get caught up on everything by Monday morning).

In the case of the Sloans, we left for Portland the week before Thanksgiving (for our international readers, Thanksgiving is a very big holiday in the US, and occurs on the last Thursday of November). On Wednesday morning, we got up very early (pre-dawn), flew up to Portland, Oregon, where we visited the headquarters of Nike.

On Thursday, we rode in a bus from Portland to Seattle and visited PACCAR (originally stood for the Pacific Car and Foundry Company), and then on Friday we visited three companies in the Seattle area: Boeing, Amazon.com, and finally Costco. Many of us spent the weekend in Seattle, our first real break since the term started.

Study trips like this are, in my opinion, one of the more fun aspects of business school. OK well maybe it's not exactly fun to get up before dawn, get dressed up in business suits, and spend the whole day listening to corporate executives talk about how great their businesses are.

But relatively speaking, it's much more fun than being in a classroom talking about these same things. On the positive side, we (usually) get to meet with high level executives of (usually) well-known companies, they give us a schpeal about Leadership, with copious amounts of company history thrown in for color, and we (usually) ask them lots of (usually) intelligent questions. And that beats studying about the derivation of the Black-Scholes option pricing formula any day!

So here’s my brain-dump from what I recall of our Northwest Study Trip:


The Cult-ure of Nike

We were welcomed to Nike headquarters near Portland by a number of executives, including the head of Nike HR, a woman in charge of retail aspects of Niketown, and a guy named Nelson, who was one of the first employees of Nike when it started back in the 70’s. His official title is now something like “Keeper of the Nike Culture”; kind of a cool title – what it seems to involve, as far as I can tell, is displaying knick-knacks that he has collected along the way, and telling stories about Nike’s history, which he did with great aplomb and fanfare.

Nelson shared with us that you could understand Nike by looking at the primary personalities around which the company was built - Phil Knight (who was CEO for a long time, not to mention a Stanford business school alum; also a multi-billioinare who donated enough money to Stanford that the new GSB campus will be called the Knight Management Center); a very famous mid-distance runner in the 1970’s named Steve PreFontaine (known to the initiated simply as Pre), and Bill Bowerman, who was a legendary track and field coach for both Knight and Pre at the University of Oregon.

Does this history matter? Well from what I could tell, these stories reflect the culture of Nike quite well to this day; and of the companies we visited, Nike had the most in your face culture: Everyone at Nike seemed to be 1) passionate about sports, and 2) passionate about the history and culture of Nike, and 3) very, very competitive, as if business was sport.

I love Nike’s products and they’ve certainly developed one of the top consumer brands of the last 30 years, but the visit was a bit strange for me. It kind of felt like I was going on a guided tour of a Scientology shrine. I felt, I don’t know how else to put it, like I was one of the un-initiated.

But it’s probably because 1) I’m not a sports fanatic, and 2) Before our visit, I had no idea who Pre was, 3) I didn’t know that Coach Bowerman was a legend in the running world, and 4) I knew that the new Stanford Business School campus was named Knight, who must've been a very rich guy for Stanford to name a campus after him, but that was about it.

We also had the former head of Nike Golf give us a presentation about leadership. Speaking of Golf, did I mention the meeting was in the Tiger Woods shrine, er, i mean, building? This building is basically a memorial to Tiger's career, including some of his trophies, memorabilia, and a timeline showing everything Tiger has done in his career. For golf fans, this building must be like dying and going to heaven.

Many of the Nike buildings are named after famous athletes. At the moment I can’t remember any of them, except for Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan (probably the last Nike product that I know by name was the Air Jordan when it was introduced in 1984, and I was on junior high school basketball team).


Nike even had an athletes walk of fame – kind of like the Hollywood Stars. I could hear my colleague’s sounds of recognition as they saw the name of their favorite 70’s or 80’s football or baseball or basketball player.

It felt like a trip into the “Cult of Nike”; I don’t mean that Nike is a cult in a bad sense; the most effective organizations with the most passionate members usually have this kind of quality to them.

Another thing I noticed about Nike culture: I found them to be brutally honest. Maybe too much so, which I kind of appreciated.

For example, why did they start the non-profit Nike foundation? Honstely, because they were getting a lot of heat over bad working conditions in their off-shore factories. Why did they want us to go the Nike store? To spend lots of money on their products so their profits will go up. Why were they being so nice to us? Because they hoped we might want to work for Nike someday. What is Nike's biggest weakness today as a company? That they're a bunch of old white guys with very little diversity. Actually it was kind of refereshing to get such direct answers.

Of course, being ignorant about sports didn’t stop me (or my classmates) from spending at the famed Nike Store. I usually buy a pair of sneakers once every five years; I bought two pairs that day!


PACCAR: The Lexus of Heavy Duty Trucks

On Thursday, we visited PACCAR outside of Seattle. According to Wikipedia, they are the third largest manufacturer of heavy-duty trucks in the world. I hadn’t heard of them before the Sloan program (one of our classmates is from PACCAR), though I had heard of their truck brands – Kenworth and Peterbilt in the US and DAF in Europe. There’s a famous gun-battle scene in the movie Heat, which was one of my favorite movies of the 90’s.

Although I grew up in Detroit, I'd never been to an automotive assembly line, so this was fun for me to see. In fact, between Nike, PACCAR, and Boeing, it was fun to see companies that made actual things.

This might seem like a trivial point, but I was discussing this with another software guy in our class, and he remarked that we weren’t used to building actual physical objects – our products are usually just bits and bytes on a computer.

At PACCAR, we had a former Sloan and (currently EVP of something), give us a talk about the company and its history. Inevitably, the question about why GM and the other US car companies were doing so poorly and why PACCAR wasn’t in danger came up. The answer was interesting – having to do with being hamstrung by unions, quality of products, and providing what customers wanted.

Of course, the world wide recession was affecting them too – demand for trucks was down considerably, their plant was running at less than maximum capacity.

The first thing that struck many of us about the assembly line was that it was spotless; as one of our colleagues from Japan told us, just like Japanese assembly lines, you could eat food off of the floor (No not literally!).

The second thing was how automated the whole process was – PACCAR was a poster-child for efficiency. Each piece of the assembly had it's own barcoding and in some cases RFID so they could track exactly where the parts or the assembled trucks were.

In fact, PACCAR is one of the few companies that Toyota allows to use one of its internal suppliers, notably the Lexus supplier for interiors, PACCAR trucks are known as the high end of trucks, often called the “Lexus of Trucks”.

When we sat inside the cab of one of their finished trucks, I could see why. As the owner of three Lexus vehicles (the only car I’d ever owned before buying a Honda hybrid a few years ago), I can confirm that the interior looked and felt kind of like I was sitting in a Lexus!


The Bigness of Boeing


On Friday we visited Boeing – this was fun. One of the EVP’s (also a Stanford Sloan alum) gave us a talk about Boeing’s line of aircraft, including the new model of the 747 (which is being used for freight primarily) and the new 787 dreamliner, of which lots of airlines have ordered, but which is behind schedule.

Of course the conversation naturally turned to Airbus and Boeing’s recent rivalry – the A380 (the very large plane that Airbus released recently) vs. the 787 dreamliner. Airbus’s plane is bigger. Does that matter? On any visit to Boeing, the conversation inevitably turns toward size.

We saw brand new 747’s being produced on the assembly line and all I can say is that they are BIG. We visited the BIGGEST building in the world. It’s so big that it has it's own fire-station, birds live in rafters, and Boeing employees hunt the birds now and then to clear them out. The building can house something like 70 football fields. The engines of the Boeing 767 are so big that it’s the same size as the fuselage (i.e. the body) of the 737 (which is the airplane that airlines like southwest use for point to point flights).

How does Boeing feel about Airbus plane being bigger than theirs? Boeing makes the point that they tried to go out to sell a larger plane, but came back with a different set of customer requirements - more fuel efficient planes. Boeing says that the two new planes are not really direct competitors – the A380 was meant for a hub and spoke model, where large numbers of passengers are going from hub to hub. The 787 dreamliner, a much more fuel efficient plane, is meant for point-to-point travel and so Boeing will sell alot more of them.

Like PACCAR, Boeing seems to be affected by the recession. Unlike PACCAR, they seem to have a very large union workforce. Unlike PACCAR, you can’t order a plane from Boeing before 2015, because all of the planes coming off the assembly line are already accounted for by “firm orders” from airlines around the world. Why would the recession affect them if planes are full until 2015? Don't know but they were certainly of the opinion that the recession would be bad for them.

We then drove by Boeing’s own little airport, which is just outside this building. When the planes are built, they are then flown off to the ordering airlines right from Boeing field. Oops...did I say "little" airport? I stand corrected. The Palo Alto airport is a little airport. Compared to this, the Boeing field is freaking huge.


Kindlin at Amazon


We then shuttled off to Amazon.com, to meet a GSB Alum who is in charge of corporate development. For me personally this was a fun visit, because of the internet angle (the lobby with articles from the nineties was like a trip down memory lane back to the dot com boom). It was also fun because as writer, I’m all into books. One of the things he spent a lot of time talking about was the Amazon kindle e-book reader.

The Kindle has been under development for a while – as it seems have many other non-successful ebook platforms. This one, though was endorsed by Oprah, who gave away kindles to all the members of her studio audience recently. And, just like that, Amazon sold out of all of it’s kindles.

With over 200,000 books available on it, this might be the ebook reader that actually works. What makes this one different? The Power of Oprah.



Costco-land

We ended our visit with a trip to Costco. The CFO it turns out is also a Stanford GSB Alum, and he came prepared with lots of slides about Costco’s past and future performance.

Speaking of cults, Costco is fascinating not because of the cult-like nature of employees, but because of the attitude of customers. It turns out I was the only US resident in the audience who’d never been inside a Costco. I remember last year, when I was part of a California company that was being acquired by EMC (which is a Massachusetts company). During the HR question and answer session (in California), the only question that the employees seemed to care about, really care about, even in this age of inflated health care prices, was whether the new company was still going to pay for employee’s Costco membership cards!

When I moved to California about a year ago, I happened to be going to a store which shared a parking lot with a Costco on the weekends. It was a madhouse… with kids and entire families jumping with excitement as if they were going to Disneyworld! There was an electricity there. Think of a 21st century version of the Brady Bunch dressing up in their sunday best to go to Sears.

We learned a lot about the history of Costco; about the founding of the company; they did close to $100 million in their very first year. They’re the third largest retailer in the industry (after Walmart and Target, I believe). The founders are still around, and the culture is very no-frills, keep costs low kind of culture.

The bottom line: Costco sells a lot of stuff at very low, wholesale prices. In fact, the CFO showed us all manner of pics and figures of the amount of various products they sell, ranging from hot dogs to diamond rings.

One dynamic that he mentioned was that Dads who spend time with their kids on weekends and aren’t sure what to do, take the kids to Costco. The kids pig out on the sugary sweets and greasy food (well he didn’t say that exactly but he did say that Costco wasn’t into healthy food) while the Dad shops, the perfect win-win situation.

Unlike PACCAR and Boeing, though, Costco doesn’t seem to be suffering from the downturn. Even more people are looking for ways to save money. In fact, he said that many "premium" brands who would not even talk to Costco in the past are now approaching Costco to get rid of excess inventory. Soon we may all be dancing in the Costco parking lots looking forward to seeing Mickey Mouse!


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