Industrial Launderer Magazine
The management philosophy that created and built Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Mission Linen Supply was uniquely “Mr. Page.” George Benson Page’s influence permeates every level of management today even though it has been 12 years since he passed away. At this year’s annual corporate meeting, several members of the senior executive team who worked closely with the founder provided IL with insight into his management philosophy. Each had different experiences and stories to reflect upon, but one common theme: work hard and service the customer. President Linda Page, Mr. Page’s daughter, pointed to her father’s humble beginnings as a major contributor to the company’s success. His values and work ethic are very much alive in Mission, she says. These were shaped in Tennessee, where he grew up on a farm and yearned to go west (see her article, page 00). In honor of his upbringing, Mission celebrated its 75th anniversary by holding this year’s meeting in Nashville and including an excursion day to the family farm in Smith County near Lebanon. That gave Linda the opportunity to personally host the company’s star performers (top managers and award winners) and highlight the importance of Mr. Page’s early days to the company culture. The Tennessee legislature recognized the day’s significance with a proclamation signed by Jimmy Naifeh, speaker of the House. On hand at the Page farm on the front porch to read the proclamation at the beginning of the day’s festivities was Rep. Stratton Bone. Following are highlights of IL’s conversation with Mr. Page’s employees still active in the business. To ascertain how his work carries on in the company today, we interviewed:
Dave Taggert, currently a logistics manager, a 52-year veteran of Mission. At the meeting, he received the George Ben Page Award for his lengthy and dedicated service to the organization.
Jack Rogers, a 41-year veteran, who started as a route salesman, became a service manager, production manager, and then GM of five plants. For the last 23 years, he has been a regional director.
Dan Gallagher started with Mission in 1964 with a position in production. He then took on a route and worked his way through college in part-time roles for the company. When he graduated, he became a management trainee, moving up to GM, and then working in the home office as project manager and sales director. He left the company but then returned in 1992 to become sales and marketing VP.
Wayne Miller, 38 years, is regional operations director for combined linen-industrial plants. He started on a route, moving up to service manager and GM.
Jim Rutherford just completed his 43rd year with the company. Now regional operations director for Mission’s industrial facilities, he too started on a route, then worked in production and sales, and was a GM. Mr. Page started this Western regional operation in Santa Barbara, expanding it to Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Texas. His employees told IL about how some of his earliest customers have remained with the company; some for more than half a century. For these Mission senior managers, a big part of working for Mr. Page was learning from him about how to work with various types of accounts from auto repair shops to country clubs. They recalled how he would establish operations in locations that seemed too small to justify the investment, but promised to grow. Places like San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Monterrey, Salinas, Bakersfield, Turlock, Modesto, Fresno, and Phoenix. Today, these are long-established bases for Mission; in some cases, the company has been there for over 50 years. Following are IL’s questions about how Mr. Page built the company and the aforementioned senior management responses.
How was he able to rationalize investing in smaller towns? Why was he so confident? Gallagher: His vision was to build a plant in a small town and grow with the community. Fortunately, he picked California to do this, where our population has expanded astronomically. Mission was soon the largest company west of the Mississippi. Taggert: Sometimes these businesses would not produce much for a long time and it was a struggle. People would ask him, “What are you doing out there?” But he had the ability to do things just right. Rutherford: He went into smaller cities and specialized in personalized service. As a manager working for him, you got involved with the community and you knew your customers well. You serviced them seven days a week if you had to. That’s what he built his reputation on. You reach out to your customers, get involved with them, and become their friends. People don’t quit on you when you’re their friend.
How could he have accumulated the money needed to operate under such circumstances? Taggert: When Mr. Page was starting out, he would go and ask people for credit. For instance, he had a relationship with some old-time guys, Alfred Wolf, Jack Kulka, and others, who started a linen product manufacturing operation with one sewing machine in an attic. So he did the same thing in garment manufacturing, a parallel business, supplying other linen laundries. They helped one another for 30 to 40 years, buying and extending credit to one another. Rogers: And as a result, we didn’t buy from anybody but them for 40 to 50 years! Gallagher: He had principles, convictions, and an amazing memory. A deal was a deal. A handshake was your word. You didn’t need any contractors or legal mumbo jumbo. You’d go right up there to the people you wanted to work with, look them in the eye, give them your word, and get their word. That’s the way the business was operated.
He must have had to be really tight with a buck. Taggert: He was excellent on thrift and he was an efficiency expert, with a knack for recognizing wasted time and motion. He’d look at a form and say the paper was too thick, it didn’t need to be that way. Some people would say that’s ridiculous, but that’s the way he operated: no wasted resources, no wasted motion, no wasted anything. That’s something that has really stuck with us. Rogers: If a single washcloth fell onto the ground off a truck, and he saw one of our people let it go, he would later say to the person, “you know, if that was a dollar bill, I’d bet you would have jumped out and picked it up!” Rutherford: Fabric was on the ground was lost money to him. Once, he put a dollar under a shop towel and put it on the plant floor. He wanted to see who would pick it up and nobody did. That just strengthened his conviction. He recognized that pennies add up to quarters and quarters to dollars.
Surrounding himself with good people must have been key to surviving lean times, too. Did you sense that he was a great judge of talent and mentor? Miller: When I was a young manager, I could sense his ability to look at people and see their true potential. When I got promoted, I didn’t know anything. I was running scared most of the time. But with Mr. Page, one thing I always admired about him was that you always knew where you stood with him. There was no quibbling about it. We would go out on the floor and he would ask me something about what was happening and I didn’t know. Both of us knew I wasn’t coming up with the right answer. Then he would guide me and drop it until sometime later. By that time, I would know the answer. So he never really beat you up, but he would leave you standing there thinking, “I should have known the answer to that.” I was terrified of Mr. Page when I was younger. When he would come onto the floor, querying about what I was doing, I’d get all nervous. Now that I think about it, he was trying to relax me, and show me that if I settled down, we could get through any situation. Rogers: He showed great loyalty to his people, and a lot of us emulated him in that respect. Maybe that’s changed in different businesses and companies over the years, but a lot of us still believe in that stuff. We took on the part of his personality that was loyal to our people who worked hard. We always take care of them.
He was known as a tireless worker; did he expect his people to put in long hours as well? Miller: A 60-hour work week was pretty normal for us. When I was running our plants in Carson City and Lancaster, I was always there on Saturday, waiting for him to call. Maybe he only called you once a year on a Saturday. But you would not leave that plant until you were certain he wasn’t going to call. Because if he did, and you weren’t there, you could be sure he was going to show up there himself Monday morning wanting to know why. Gallagher: Working Saturday wasn’t a requirement, but it was expected, especially in the linen plants. It was the day you got to the equipment, prepared yourself for the next week, and did what you couldn’t do during the previous week. Maybe you took the strings off cart wheels, painted your carts, sorted some towels, or that kind of thing. Rogers: He wanted you there on holidays, because nobody else was working then. You could go out and get customers who were working on holidays because they would really be impressed that you were working, too. Gallagher: That surely helped us keep business. I don’t know that we sold anything much, but when you make that kind of effort, you don’t lose customers. You help them be more profitable.
Did you sense that he paid attention to more details than other CEOs might? Rutherford: When he traveled, he had a remarkable knack for knowing employees by first name. He would always make his rounds and he seemed to know everyone. Some of those people are still working for us, and they remember the way he would ask how they were and how their families were doing. Gallagher: Pete Peterson, our chief engineer, swore that Mr. Page knew where every single truck was by number, and the same thing with the major machinery. I used to ask him about the vehicles. I’d say, “where’s 210?” and he’d respond, “it’s on some motel route” or “it’s being used as a spare” at some other plant. Plus, we had to send in cost reports every week and he looked at those very closely. He called them the “5B” reports because they consolidated five budgets: production, engineering, service, administration, and routes. Rutherford: When I was transferred to Santa Cruz, he told me about a pants presser employee, about 25 years old, who could do 264 pairs an hour. The best I could do was 195. I thought, “when I get up there, I’ve got to watch her. She’s got to be magic.” When I saw her, I saw that she was double-legging. So I said to Mr. Page, “Gotcha.” Mr. Page looked at me and said, “This made you think a little different, didn’t it?” Gallagher: His attention to detail led to much innovation. If you consider some of the big steps forward the industry took in energy and water conservation and heat reclamation, Mission was the first to do those things. We had proprietary technology that he sold to the Saudis so they could reclaim their water. We were also the first to go to computers with software for our industry and our data center even served our competitors. Taggert: He was also very focused on taxes. He was not afraid to take on the federal government, challenge them, question rulings, and ask for special consideration. Gallagher: In the ‘60s and ‘70s, he spent a tremendous amount of time studying taxes. He would say, “As hard as it is to make this money, I think we’re giving the government too much of it. They say they’re our partner. But no partner would take that much from us.” So he would spend a lot of time studying tax law. He feared no one: no competitor, vendor, or the government, and he definitely challenged the IRS.
How did he make sales everyone’s business? Did he lead by example? Rutherford: He would always interact with customers. We had a situation in Santa Cruz when we were getting raked over the coals on pricing, so he talked to four different dealers and convinced them to stay with him. He showed them what we were going to do to keep the business. They understood our value because of what he told them. Taggert: He would echo that if you have your facts together and you think your position is right, you stick to your guns no matter what other people say or do. There’s nothing wrong with that. Gallagher: He was a salesman because he wanted everybody in the company to sell. That’s the reason he believed in very small office spaces. He didn’t want anyone spending in any time in there! You make your money by being out with customers. That’s where your opportunity is! Miller: It was OK to be in your office on a Saturday. But you didn’t want to let him catch you sitting at your desk on a weekday. If he showed up at your plant and you were in your office, you knew you were in trouble.
How important were plant visits to him? Rogers: You could never accuse him of being a stay-at-home owner. He was always traveling through the plants constantly. Gallagher: We had plant-to-plant phone communications, but he spent a lot of time traveling all over the company. He drove everywhere, flying very seldom. But it was still a big deal every time he came. When he arrived in one plant, its staff alerted the people at the next plant on his list that he was about to be on his way there. When he traveled the plants, he liked the camaraderie. He knew his men had just put in a 10- or 12-hour day and he enjoyed having a beer with the boys at the plant after work. Rutherford: When he saw a bunch of guys working a long day on a piece of equipment, he would bring over a 6-pack and have a beer with everybody. Miller: When Mr. Page came through your plant, spent eight or nine hours there walking around, and came up to you later and said, “Let’s have a beer,” that meant you had made it. You were the pinnacle of perfection. This was a guy who would find every little flaw. He could see a napkin on the floor underneath a cart 50 yards away. So when he walked through that plant and said, “Want to go have a beer, Mr. Miller?” I walked out of there pumped up.
You guys must have been really green when he started to mentor you. Gallagher: I was managing a plant when I was 23. He gave us our chance as young men to show we could be managers. He wasn’t afraid to do that because of the work ethic and loyalty we showed. That’s why it’s so important today for our managers today to be exposed to these guys (Taggert, Rogers, Miller, Rutherford). They’re the last who really worked closely with Mr. Page when he was still really running the company. Rutherford: I was 24 or 25 when I became a manager. I remember him always saying he would give us opportunities. He was tough, but he was fair. We had to know all aspects of the business. So a lot of the work that maybe younger people might choose to learn today, like learning how to lube a piece of equipment, was required for us. The message from him that we can deliver to our younger counterparts is their need to be loyal. I think it’s getting across. The majority of our people understand why it’s so important. Miller: He was such a personality that you never wanted to disappoint him. I never wanted him to be even the slightest bit unhappy with anything I did or the answers I gave. When he would ask me something and I didn’t know the answer, the next time I made sure I had the details down threefold. Then, when he would give you that smile, it felt like a hundred buck raise. He developed us, guided us, and his leadership skills pushed us to excel the way we did.