It's May 10, 1999, and I'm watching 1,200 of the happiest people I've ever seen frolic on a pristine Bermuda beach. All were flown to the island--for the day--by their employer, Jordan's Furniture, based in Avon, Mass.
These folks aren't feeling good just because they have a day off in paradise. They're feeling good because they love their jobs. All kinds of jobs. This is an event for every single employee, not just the highest-grossing salespeople. There are truck drivers and warehouse clerks, electricians and store managers. Even part-timers were invited.
Why did Jordan's offbeat owners, Barry and Eliot Tatelman, throw such an extravagant and expensive party? "We're the highest-volume per-square-foot furniture retailer in the country because of our people," says Barry. "We want to put a smile on their faces."
Prologue: The Puzzle Feb. 25, 9 a.m.: Corporate Meetings & Incentives Design Director Kimberly Aaronson is driving into the office in Maynard, Mass., listening to the radio. Suddenly her ears perk up, and she turns up the volume. No, it's not the dreaded traffic jam bulletin. It's a statement from Jordan's Furniture owners Barry and Eliot Tatelman, known on a first-name basis by nearly everyone in Massachusetts and New Hampshire from their quirky radio and TV commercials. But this time, they're not touting the virtues of their "Oops Proof" fabric protection or their "underprices." Instead, Barry and Eliot announce that on Monday, May 10, they will be closing their stores and chartering four private jets to fly all 1,200-odd employees--a.k.a. the J-Team--to Bermuda for a beach day. Kim is wowed by the announcement, as are the J-Team members and thousands of other listeners hearing it for the first time.
1998 was a very good year for Jordan's Furniture. Its fourth store, a 130,000-square-foot extravaganza in Natick, Mass., opened in May. Company sales increased an estimated 52 percent over 1997 to roughly $202.5 million, according to the trade publication Furniture Today. Great news for the company, but it was a long haul for employees, who were particularly squeezed for office and warehouse space.
Ordinary CEOs might thank their employees with cash bonuses and incentives for the top salespeople. Not Barry and Eliot. "Because we're a private company, we can do what we feel in our hearts is the right thing," says Eliot. "It's our nature to do things out of the box." Adds Barry: "To stand out and be different, you have to do something different."
Different indeed. Consider the build-up to the February announcement, which was orchestrated like a game of Clue. First, every J-Team member received a zippered jacket as a holiday gift, decorated with a button that said, "May 10, 1999?" During the next few months, employees were continually teased with questions, in the form of puzzle pieces that came with their paychecks, on banners that hung in the stores, on giveaway lollipops. Finally they were told to tune in to Boston radio station Kiss 108 at 9 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 25, and the answers would be revealed. (The announcement also was broadcast in the stores.)
"We announced the trip over the radio, because it was a way to tell all our people," says Eliot. "The media picked it up . . . and it was a double hit for us because it spread our name to the public and to future employees."
Meanwhile, the radio announcement about a one-day "Bermuda Breakaway" went beyond the J-Team's wildest speculations. "They were incredibly excited," says Jordan's Director of Public Relations Heather Copelas, who coordinated the event with the help of Bostonbased TNT Vacations. "Some of our employees had never been out of the state before. Some had never even flown on an airplane."
Finally: The Big Day May 9, 3 a.m.: Nikki Carlozzi, a store service coordinator and eight-year veteran at Jordan's, isn't in the habit of getting up in the middle of the night. But at this particular pre-dawn hour, she's bursting with positive energy as she hurries out of her house, looking forward to what she calls "Barry and Eliot's most extravagant party so far." Carlozzi is wearing a turquoise Bermuda Breakaway T- shirt, one of several promotional items given to every member of the J-Team. She can't wait for the day to begin.
At 3:30 a.m., 25 buses pull up to the four Jordan's stores to take employees to Boston's Logan International Airport. Each person is given an armband in one of four colors (pink, yellow, blue, or white) coordinated to the four chartered planes. When the busloads of people arrive at the airport, they're welcomed by a live band and directed to the correct gate by a TNT staffer according to the color of their armbands.
This is the largest single event departure in Logan Airport's history, and one whole end of the international terminal has been allocated exclusively for the group. Carlozzi and her 1,200 colleagues sip coffee and nibble on muffins from the continental breakfast that has been set up at each gate.
People cheer when the boarding call for the first flight is announced at 6:30. It's followed by take-offs every 20 minutes.
During the flight, everything is carefully orchestrated to rev up the J-Team spirit, down to the specially made in-flight video that features Barry and Eliot hamming it up as ersatz pilots.
An Auspicious Arrival May 10, 9:15 a.m.: I'm out on the tarmac at Bermuda International Airport, along with Charles Webbe, public relations manager for the Bermuda Department of Tourism, Holly Powers, director industry relations for TNT Vacations, and several of Powers' staff. We've been given special dispensation to be here to greet the procession of Jordan's jets flying in from Boston.
The airport, normally deserted at this time of the morning, is stirring with activity as customs and immigration officers arrive early to make sure that Jordan's employees--along with a cadre of journalists and television crews--have a smooth arrival. A fleet of 50 taxis is lined up to whisk them to Clearwater Beach, a wide stretch of rolling green lawn, pearly sand beach, and clear turquoise waters that is part of the Bermuda park system.
This event is a very big deal for Bermuda. As in Boston, it's the largest single airport event in the country's history, and the unconfirmed buzz is that this one day will bring in about $500,000 worth of revenue.
Why was Bermuda chosen in the first place? "We needed a destination that was doable in one day and we wanted to keep flight time within two and a half hours," says Copelas. "No other spot has the wow factor of Bermuda. Where else can you find paradise so close to New England?"
Bermuda also makes a great first impression. Unlike many tropical islands, the area immediately surrounding the airport is lovely. Visitors immediately notice the striking blue-green waters, vividly colored flowers, and hillside Mediterranean-style architecture.
Excitement builds as our group on the tarmac spots the first jet coming in for a landing, a 380-seat DC-10. But our anticipation is nothing compared with that of the people onboard. They deplane whooping and waving, hurrying down the ramp with giveaway beach bags in tow. There are men and women of all ages, many wearing the Bermuda Breakaway T-shirts and hats. Multi-colored leis hang around their necks. They're all grinning like crazy. Sandra, a young woman who works in the Avon store, looks a bit dazed. "It's my first time on a plane," she says. "I can't believe how beautiful the view is. I can't believe how turquoise the water is."
Party Time May 10, 11 a.m.: The 1,200 J-Team employees storm the beach, strip to their bathing suits, grab a soda, find their friends, and stretch out on the hundreds of lounges brought to the beach for this occasion. But the air is restless. Everyone is speculating about when Jordan's co-owners are going to get there. It seems unlikely that Barry, 48, and Eliot, 53, would inspire the kind of adulation most often given to rock stars and media icons. They're a pair of look-alike middle-aged brothers, distinguished by their graying beards, friendly grins, and wisecracking banter, not movie-star persona. But I've never heard such unsolicited accolades about anyone's bosses. "The J-Team isn't just a slogan," insists David Fransen, a manager of showroom operations and customer service. "Barry and Eliot really believe it." Maria Waeger, who works in housekeeping, comments: "Barry and Eliot always think of their employees before themselves."
I join the crowd gathering around a stage at the park's grassy entrance, waiting for the big moment. Then huge cheers tell me that the furniture mavens have arrived. So has a cadre of officials from Bermuda, including Minister of Tourism David H. Allen and St. George's town crier E. Michael Jones, who clangs his bell to launch a brief opening ceremony. Barry and Eliot are granted honorary citizenship for the day and presented with pink Bermuda shorts and knee socks (which Eliot dons later.) "This is your day to relax and have fun," they tell their fans. "Not long ago, we were 12 people working out of a garage. Now look where we are."
Throughout the day, I watch the Tatelmans as they quip with the press, shoot a television commercial, zip around the grounds in a golf cart, and most important, mingle with their employees. They lock arms for photos, stop to chat with clusters of people hunkered down at the food tables, and fool around with the band. Not only are they visibly present, but they seem to be having a great time.
By now, the J-Team is thoroughly in party mode. People play volleyball, go snorkeling, feast on a scrumptious barbecue, tour the town of St. George's, drift lazily on air mattresses in the sparkling sea. It's a perfect spring day in Bermuda, with a clear blue sky and temperatures hovering around 80 degrees.
As the afternoon shadows lengthen, people gather in a last burst of energy to shake it up with a vintage rock & roll band from Nashville called Stave Jarrell and the Sons of the Beach. A limbo contest inspires much fanfare before people start to prepare for the first taxi rides back to the airport at 5 p.m.
It's clear that this day is making lots of memories for Jordan's employees. For me, the essence of the event is captured when I'm sitting at a tent-shaded table interviewing Barry and Eliot. We're interrupted by a young man who cups his hands in a V-shape under his chin and hoots loudly at Jordan's owners: "This is the best!" They grin and reach out to high-five his hand.
Epilogue: Bermuda Lives on May 11, 8 a.m.: A breakfast is set up in each of the stores, so that employees can mingle with each other and share stories about the trip. Like their employees, Barry and Eliot are tired from their Bermuda revels, but they don't sleep in. Instead, they visit every store to thank the J-Team again.
The event catapults Jordan's into nationwide fame. There's huge media coverage: The Bermuda Breakaway story is picked up by 18 ABC television affiliates, all four major networks in Boston, CNN, "Good Morning America," and "Oprah." TNT Vacations' Holly Powers receives inquiries from a slew of companies--from grocery store chains to advertising firms--asking about similar programs for their employees, and decides to launch a new division of TNT that will specialize in similar one-day travel incentives. "It's a terrific way to increase employee satisfaction and reduce turnover," Powers comments. "It also helps to attract the best new people."
Meanwhile, Jordan's management makes sure the event is not soon forgotten. On May 12, the on-site commercial of Barry and Eliot spiffing up a sand sofa on Clearwater Beach hits the local television networks. To help keep the Bermuda spirit alive in the months to come, each employee will be given a video of the day's festivities.
"People will be talking about this for a long time," says Eliot.
Furniture Mavens Make Good In 1973, Barry and Eliot Tatelman took over the family furniture store in Waltham, Mass., that had been run by their father and his father before him. That same year, they stopped advertising in the local paper and started advertising on radio. It was a prescient move for the two maverick cut-ups whose unconventional radio and television commercials ultimately made them household names in the Boston area.
These guys also made it fun to buy furniture. They built and opened three additional stores: Nashua, N.H., in 1983; Avon, Mass., in 1987; and Natick, Mass., in 1998. Each store is more elaborate than the one before. Nashua gives away fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and balloons. Avon offers hot dogs and hubcap washes, not to mention a $2.5 million Motion Odyssey Movie Ride. Natick has 130,000 square feet of furniture displays and a replica of Bourbon Street, complete with a multimedia Mardi Gras experience.
It's not all bells and whistles. Purchasing furniture at Jordan's is different from purchasing furniture elsewhere. There are no sale prices, just "underprices." The idea is to encourage people to browse, not browbeat them into buying. Salespeople are not paid on commission. "Our motto," says Eliot, "is 'Never lie to a customer or to each other.'"
This unconventional way of doing business has paid off. During the past 25 years, Jordan's employee base has grown from 15 to more than 1,200 people. The largest furniture company in New England, it enjoys sales of about $950 per square foot--the highest-volume furniture retailer in the country, according to the trade publication Furniture Today.
Fun Facts Bermuda's Clearwater Beach was transformed from a serene hideaway into an elaborate beach party and barbecue for 1,200 people. Among the extras:
* 2 1,000-gallon water trucks with compressors and hoses for rinsing off
* Two stages and three bands
* Four buffet lines and four huge charcoal grills
* Seven film crews, 10 journalists
* Twenty cooks
* $150,000 worth of food, including 1,000 hot dogs, 1,000 hamburgers, 450 pounds of local fish, 600 pounds of chicken, 500 pounds of fruit, 200 pounds of cole slaw, and 200 pounds of chocolate mousse
* Twenty-four TNT Vacation staffers
* One sand sofa created by West Palm Beach Floridabased Buzz the Sandman
* One limbo stick
Corporate Culture: NiceGuys Finish First Jordan's Furniture's corporate culture flies in the face of the traditional retail operation. The basic tenets: Be nice, be honest, have fun. "It works like osmosis," says Barry Tatelman, co-owner of Jordan's with his brother, Eliot. "If you treat someone nice, they're nice to you. That's the culture of our company."
The nice-guy philosophy permeates all aspects of the company. "The way we treat our employees and the incentive programs we do year-round are a huge part of our mission," notes Director of Public Relations Heather Copelas. The goal, comments Barry, is for people to feel good about coming to work. "You can't give people the same thing every day. Something new and exciting will help them feel appreciated."
New employees get their first taste of corporate culture when Barry and Eliot join them for a casual welcome dinner. The idea is that every J-Team member has the opportunity to sit down and break bread with the co-owners. There are Fun Days throughout the year at the four stores, ranging from a barbecue in the parking lot to an ice cream buffet set up in the warehouse. Directors and supervisors are empowered to reward hard-working departments, for example, by holding a big Italian lunch on a Friday afternoon. Fun stuff like mini bingo contests with prizes can happen any time. And every year or two, the company throws a big party for all of its employees.
There's no formal policy on employee incentives. "The process is spontaneous and the ideas can come from anywhere," says Copelas. "But upper management thinks every day about what we can do to make employees happy." Adds Eliot, "We don't want a canned program. We go by instinct and by being out there with the people."