The Symphony of Hundreds of hammers hammering, a half-dozen circular saws buzzing, and 800 Habitat for Humanity corporate volunteers grunting was a sweet sound in the new New Orleans neighborhood of Musicians' Village, which is set amid some of the worst destruction of Hurricane Katrina. It's here that thousands of homes have been left decrepit and abandoned, with rust-colored marks (called “brown lines” by the locals) on their exteriors showing just how high the flood water rose, in some cases 10 to 15 feet. It's also here that hope is returning as families move into these pretty rows of brilliantly colored new homes, with friendly dogs napping on their front porches and smoke rising from their chimneys. It's slowly becoming home again.
And it's here that appliance giant Whirlpool decided to hold a community event as part of its weeklong sales meeting in January at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, designed around the theme “Building for Tomorrow.” Whirlpool's choice to construct new homes is symbolic: It is also building a new company by merging two 100-year-old corporate cultures — Whirlpool (whose top brands include Whirlpool, KitchenAid, and Kenmore for Sears) and Maytag (Maytag, Amana, Jenn-Air) — just nine months after acquiring its rival.
“In some respects, the build is symbolic of building our future,” says Sam Abdelnour, Whirlpool's vice president of sales, North American region. Since 1999, Whirlpool has donated a refrigerator and a range to every Habitat home built in North America, and its employees often participate in Habitat builds. In 2006, for example, Whirlpool brought 300 employees and consumers to Nashville, Tenn., to build 10 homes in one week.
The sales meeting is Abdelnour's baby, his to call the shots and take responsibility for its success or failure. “More important, it sends a clear message about the Whirlpool culture, the importance of giving back and taking care of people,” he says. “If you ever have the experience of seeing a Habitat homeowner when someone hands them the keys to their new home, there is no better feeling. There is nothing more important.”
It's Wednesday morning at 6:30 a.m., and almost 800 participants are being bused to Musicians' Village, which was conceived by New Orleans residents and jazz all-stars Harry Connick Jr. and Branford and Ellis Marsalis, to participate in the Habitat for Humanity build.
“It's pretty exciting,” says Laurianne Itter, a key account manager from Phoenix, as her bus arrives on-site.
Then she steps outside without a coat.
“Ahhh! It's freezing!” she says.
The bad news: The weather had been 80 degrees and sunny when the meeting opened Monday, but by Wednesday, it had dropped to 37. Few of the attendees had brought coats, because participation in the build was a surprise until the night before. They were only instructed to bring work boots or closed-toe shoes and blue jeans.
The good news: When they get to the site, their enthusiasm returns. The Whirlpool army tackles its chores with gusto, pouring concrete for shed platforms, building enough walls for 100 storage sheds, digging holes for fence posts, hoisting backyard fences into place, and planting trees and shrubs.
“Do you hear those hammers and saws?” Abdelnour asks.
“It's like music,” says Jeff Terry, Whirlpool's senior manager of corporate commitment and strategic relationships.
Rachel Lightner, a Whirlpool employee based in Knoxville, Tenn., tries digging post holes, but finds she is better suited to carting materials back and forth with a wheelbarrow.
“This was always my favorite city,” she says. “When the levies broke, I cried. I was impressed with Whirlpool for coming here and doing this work. It's an opportunity to hang out with people. It also makes you respect them for contributing. And it's great to see the corporate guys swinging a pickaxe. I almost teared up several times.” (Incredibly, two weeks after returning from New Orleans, Lightner herself became homeless when a fire engulfed and destroyed her home.)
“We see it as an opportunity to give back,” says Marv Raglon, Whirlpool's purchase experience manager forand retail business. “But it's also a event. It helps employees from North America, South America, and Canada come together as a team. It's a great opportunity for our people to get together and know each other as Marv, Virginia, and Jose. ‘The problems you're having in Los Angeles are the same I'm having in Toronto.’ It builds esprit de corps.”
Why New Orleans? Why now?
Whirlpool wants to talk to its sales force directly at least once a year. That might seem obvious in some organizations, but it was a practice the appliance maker had moved away from until recent years. “We used to meet every three years, sometimes every two years,” Raglon says. “Four years ago, we decided we needed to do it every year. Sam [Abdelnour] promised we would do it more frequently and on a grander scale.”
The merger reinforced the need to bring every face under one roof. The meeting was moved to the beginning of the year, the front of the business cycle, so Whirlpool could communicate its goals and objectives for the year.
“We have certain criteria,” Raglon adds. “We want to be in an area in January where it's warm; we don't want to be in a place that's snowing. We want good lift in and out. We want to be in one facility.”
As late as September 2006, no decision had been made on location.
“We had a great experience in Atlanta in 2006; I was willing to go back,” Abdelnour says. “Then we heard the hotel was going to be under renovation, so we started making site visits.”
“I was ambivalent at best about New Orleans, but I like the area,” Raglon says. “We planned to make a site visit; I wanted to see some of the devastation. Lisa Verdak [Whirlpool's account manager from Wisconsin-based meeting planning firm Meetings & Incentives] and some of the people with me during that trip were a little uneasy.”
“It was that fear of the unknown, yes,” Verdak says.
Then they visited the Habitat for Humanity site at Musicians' Village. “It changed my vision of what and how to do this meeting,” Raglon says. “I left that day with a feeling that somehow we had to put this meeting in New Orleans.”
Lots of planners make site visits to post-Katrina New Orleans, but not many have succeeded in sharing their vision with other decision-makers who only know the city from its downbeat and sometimes violent media reports.
“It wasn't easy to sell it to our officers when we got back,” Raglon admits. “There were safety concerns for our employees and for the success of the corporation. I just felt in my heart — I can't even explain it — that we needed to do this.”
A veteran of many decades with Whirlpool, Raglon chose to test the level of good will he engendered.
“Thirty-six years has bought me a lot of credibility,” he says. “I'm given a lot of leeway and responsibility you wouldn't normally see with somebody with my title. In my 36 years, we have always been a corporation that stands for certain principles and values. We do things for the community, and there was a need here for us to take care of business that needed to be taken care of. So I said, ‘There are concerns, but New Orleans needs us.’”
There were practical issues for the meeting planners as well. For example, there is only one FedEx Kinko's in New Orleans, and it closes at 6 p.m. Other items taken for granted in other places are in short supply. “We called one day to get a certain kind of extension cord. There were none,” Verdak says. “It was like we were on an island.”
But they didn't let that stop them.
The National Guard had been withdrawn from New Orleans just a few weeks before Whirlpool's arrival, and the city's efforts to rebuild its image among meeting planners and tourists suffered a black eye after a rash of murders in the days leading up to the conference. Meeting Professionals International, which would be in New Orleans the week after Whirlpool, experienced a huge anxiety backlash from its members.
The night before its Habitat for Humanity build, Whirlpool's attempt at providing a safety briefing for its employees was turned upside down by New Orleans Police Department Assistant Superintendent Steve Nicholas, who took a wide detour from a prepared script — and map — that was intended to steer Whirlpool employees to the relatively secure French Quarter and away from neighborhoods that were less under the control of the authorities.
Instead, he essentially told attendees not to worry about their safety and to just go out and spend lots of money.
“Around this country,” Nicholas said, “you hear a lot of negative things about this city. But by and large, people want to know where this city is that the media is describing. You'll see police everywhere. Safety is our main concern. You are our main concern. We need you back; we need you to spend your money. I live a block from here, so I can assure you there are lots of police.”
Raglon tried, unsuccessfully, to steer the police official back to the agreed-upon safety talk, but finally gave up. “This is where you say ‘Thank you,’ and get off the stage,” he said firmly.
Only Raglon and Abdelnour knew immediately that Nicholas had failed to deliver the safety lecture for which he was invited. He and another city official received an emotional standing ovation from attendees.
A few minutes later, a visibly unhappy Sam Abdelnour took the stage and advised his employees to use appropriate caution in the city and only stick to the blue areas on the maps that had been handed out.
“I was extremely frustrated,” Abdelnour says. “As positive as everything was going, articles were popping up everywhere. Somebody sent me a front page from USA Today before we arrived about multiple murders, that crime was rampant, and things were getting worse. My fear was that I've got a selling organization that is about 50 percent under 30 years old. There's no way to keep them in the hotel at night. My guess was that it was the first visit to New Orleans for a lot of them. I'd want and expect them to experience the French Quarter. My biggest fear was their safety.”
This was not the conference start for which they had hoped. Fortunately, no Whirlpool employees reported any safety issues over the five-day meeting.
Despite the safety concerns and un-cooperative weather, the first joint meeting of Whirlpool and Maytag accomplished its stated goal of introduction and teambuilding.
“If the comments I got back from our employees are an indication of how well things went, we hit it out of the park,” Raglon says. (See box on page 19.)
From Abdelnour on down, there was a willingness in New Orleans to accept the view that Whirlpool faced huge challenges in merging the two organizations' products and culture. There are still many decisions to be made about what brands will stay within the family and which might be spun off. And there may be a few more awkward days as the organization continues adjusting to its new size and complexity.
In a plainspoken, post-dinner stage presentation one night, Guy Minnix, director of marketing, strategy and distributor sales in the contract channel, posed questions to Abdelnour for which the sales staff demanded answers. “Some of the folks in this room feel wounded, beat up,” he said. “Some feel like they're on an island by themselves. What are we going to do to protect our biggest asset?”
Abdelnour chimed in. “We recognize how difficult it has been for folks in this room with systems, processes, and supply-chain issues. They're not all going to be fixed in '07, but we'll make progress every day.”
Dick Berka, territory manager for its Florida sales division, is one of those “folks” whom this meeting was intended to win over. This isn't his first rodeo; he started with Magic Chef in 1976 and became part of Maytag when it acquired his former employer a decade later. “I'm one of the survivors,” he says. Only time will tell how much this meeting helped to build a new future for the company. But Berka is optimistic. “I think Whirlpool has a great opportunity.”
1,190 Minutes of Training
The Whirlpool sales meeting was no party, despite its location a few blocks east of the city's famed — and notorious — French Quarter. Days started at 6 a.m. and typically went on and on through 10 p.m. Much of that time was spent in training.
“One of the most repeated requests from our new integrated sales force was, ‘We don't know all the products; we've got to have product training,’” says Guy Minnix, director of marketing, strategy and distributor sales in the contract channel.
That's what they received: Every conferee was required to go through 17 — that's right, 17 — 70-minute courses during the week. That equates to about four hours per day.
“When you have people from two companies coming together,” Minnix says, “when you don't know the products of the other company, you're not going to push those products because you don't know how to sell them. Success will be if we see a spike in sales of each other's brands. We'll know people can talk about them, so we're going to be able to see a short-term effect. And the trade will respond. They're going to tell us, ‘Your people really know your product.’”
In an Employee's Own Words
From an e-mail sent to Sam Abdelnour on the Monday after Whirlpool's meeting in New Orleans:
“I just want to take a second to thank you and your staff for taking the time under some pretty hard scrutiny to lead what I feel turned out to be even a better sales convention than last year's event.
“You asked for us to tell you about a takeaway. I have many, but when I look back on Wednesday morning at 7:00 am with a thousand of my cohorts freezing our ‘asses’ off waiting to get our assignments for the Habitat build, I thought to myself that there was no way in God's Creation that we were going to accomplish anything with this many people. One hour later as I looked over the work area and listened to all the noise of hammers and saws being used and fence post holes being dug, it conjured up a lot of pride in me for both the great company I've worked for over the past 36 years and for my fellow coworkers.
“This convention allowed two former rivals to get together for the first time as teammates. This is a very powerful team and I hope we can go forward as one cohesive group and not be referred to in the future as Heritage Whirlpool or Heritage Maytag, but as Whirlpool Corporation. We are now one family.
“Thanks again for allowing the family to have its first reunion together.”
Back in Business
If the flooding doesn't get you, the flying debris apparently will.
The Hilton New Orleans Riverside, site of the Whirlpool meeting, wasn't affected by the rising tides caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was water intrusion caused by flying debris that shut down the popular convention center hotel. Windows were shattered and rain poured in — and down. The health club's roof was peeled back by wind, allowing water to seep into the meeting space below.
When all was said and done, $42 million was spent renovating the hotel, which now looks and runs like new.
That said, New Orleans isn't an easy sell.
“The reason we've been able to get back on our feet is the corporate meetings market,” says General Manager Fred Sawyer. “They dictate, ‘You must show up.’ We have the availability, the value, and the desirability to make it work for them.”
Sawyer says his facility is a better-than-average value, but “that's not to say we're in deep discounting mode. Yet, with the F&B, meeting room rentals, and AV, we will work harder to make it a win-win.”
As president of the city's hotel association this year, Sawyer knows first-hand the opportunity before him to make a difference for his adopted city. “The thing I tell my counterparts is that I can't imagine a more rewarding job. It's gratifying building up something that was great and will be great again.”