Saturday, February 12, 2011

Forrest North out at Mission, now Saiki out at Zero?..

The days are long gone when Soichiro Honda could show up late for a board meeting, wearing a shop coat and absent-mindedly toying with a camshaft, speaking only to insist that the company spend unheard-of percentages of revenue on upgraded production equipment, R & D, and racing. Luckily, his friend Takeo Fujisawa, who ran the company day-to-day, always had Honda's back. Reading period reports from within Honda before Soichiro's retirement in the early '70s, it's clear that he galvanized the entire workforce, sparked creativity, and inspired a belief that anything was possible. What would have become of Honda, the company, if they had turfed out Honda, the man, after the release of the Honda Dream?
I'm reading reports that Zero Electric Motorcycle founder Neal Saiki's been pushed out of the company he founded three or four years ago. And I recently heard that Forrest North's no longer got any day to day responsibility at Mission Motors, where he was the founding CEO.

Years ago, I was the VP Marketing of a Canadian retailer called Mark's Work Wearhouse. People used to ask me all the time if I was the Mark in the store's name, and I told them no, I was the other Mark at the company. I reported directly to the founder, Mark Blumes. He was a legend in Canadian business -- partly because he was a huge, crude, cigar-smoking caricature of a Jewish retail baron, and partly because he'd started with a great idea and few thousand bucks in inventory and built it into a 200-store, $200 million business with one of the country's strongest brands (that's where I helped.) Despite his gruff exterior he was the classic thin-skinned guy driven by a need to prove all the better looking, cliquey kids in his school that he was a winner. If you told him a story that was even a little bit sad, he'd cry.

My office was about 100 feet down the hall from big Mark and if he needed me, he'd just yell for me. If it was a bad day (common in retail, since you lose money about 9 days out of 10) it'd be, "Gardiner, you @$$#ole, get down here!" That was a sign he loved me. He was the kind of guy who, in an excited conversation, would accidentally spit on you, and seem not to notice he'd done it. Once, we went to some fancy New Age $1000/day corporate creativity retreat in New Mexico where we shared a suite. I was reading late at night when he let loose a ripping fart so cacophonous, I burst out laughing. He woke up demanding to know what was so funny. "I have no idea," I replied. "I must've been dreaming."

I moved on, starting my own ad agency. And after one more round of financing, Mark lost controlling interest in the company that bore his name, and he was turfed out by the board. He was a broken man, and I have to say that while I was saddened when my old friend died, I was almost relieved. With his company, he lacked a raison d'etre.

I've been critical of both Saiki and North in the past -- The first time I interviewed Saiki, I came away thinking, that he was not even trying to actually build a motorcycle company; I was sure his exit strategy was just to sell Zero to some larger OEM as a sort of turn-key EV R&D department. North, as CEO of Mission two years ago, was essentially fully occupied with seeking additional funding, but no one I spoke to there could elucidate a business plan; no one seemed to have any sense of the risks of overpromising - and the final responsibility for that lies at the top. Despite the fact that I asked tough questions, both were unfailingly gracious to me, and seemed like genuinely nice guys.

For them, being turfed out is not nearly the same thing as it was for my old boss. Big Mark got his retail training at the Hudson Bay Company, a Canadian retailer that was, at the time, about 400 years old. Mark's goal was to build a permanent company in his (admittedly homely) image. Saiki and North are young, super-intelligent guys with very desirable skillsets, and they're from a different culture of serial entrepreneurship. And they probably both had nice parachutes.

There's a lesson here though, for brilliant technical guys and engineers (it happened to Erik Buell, too.)

A big idea won't get you that far. You've got to have a business plan, and if you don't have one, your investors will create one for you. Money guys are drawn to big ideas, but the closer they get to them, the more they tend to focus on your ideas' attendant risks and not the future rewards. 

At that point, you're expendable.

No comments:

Post a Comment