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Editor's Notes: Clunkers at work

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Robin Doussard
Monday, August 10, 2009
Doussard Family Industries (DFI) called an emergency executive session this weekend to discuss whether the company should participate in the cash for clunkers program.

As CEO, president, vice president, treasurer, secretary and bookkeeper, I wanted to get the operation manager’s input. He is, after all, in charge of all car maintenance and upkeep, buying gas and finding a parking space. Although he is not authorized to make car purchases (or any purchases, for that matter) without executive signature, I do like to make him feel like a part of the team. He’s been with the company 31 years and we at DFI value his loyal service, if not his attitude.

At issue was the company vehicle: a 12-year-old F150 that gets 12 miles to the gallon. (According to recent reports, it’s one of the top vehicles traded in the program.) It’s an environmental embarrassment, not to mention a style disaster, and lord knows it qualifies as a clunker. I was thinking that if we could take the $4,500 offered in the federal program to upgrade to something more appropriate for executive use, now was the time to consider it. (I've commissioned a poll for further input.)

The meeting was held at HQ at just past the cocktail hour (noon on weekends). Ops always is in a better mood after the first beer, and I wanted this discussion to go a bit more smoothly than the recent finance subcommittee meeting on the cash reserves needed for the executive fall wardrobe. (Ops has a very unsophisticated view of what it takes to compete in this area.)

But it wasn’t hard to call the meeting. Ops loves cars, even though the company historically has not put any money into that budget line item. He was ready with the research. First suggestion: something sleek, sexy and German. When I reminded him “cash for clunkers” was not about replacing the CEO, he dropped that suggestion and started talking up the looks of a Cadillac and the new tarted-up Ford pickup. All of them got better mileage than the current fleet so he was on high moral ground in his opinion.

I had to admire Ops’ strategy. Buy American, support the economy. Deflect the withering criticism sure to come his way.

I countered by suggesting a modest, high-mileage small car. Something that didn’t take a stepladder to get into, something that used only one parking space. Understanding we couldn’t haul trees or take trash to the dump in this vehicle was a small price to pay to have a vehicle that upgraded DFI’s public profile, while still reserving enough assets to redo the executive washroom this year.

Ops quickly lost interest. If it couldn't be big or flashy, what was the point? Frankly, it’s just this kind of thinking that has prevented his rise at the company. The meeting ran out of steam when we couldn’t figure out how spending more than $30,000 to save $4,500 was going to help the budget situation, especially since we need a substantial amount of money for deferred maintenance for repairs in the operations systems (which are rapidly aging).

I suggested we table the discussion until I could find out if there was any federal funding for Botox or state stimulus money earmarked for purchases made at Saks. It was 12:05 and the staff was exhausted. We adjourned and decided to drive to the corner bookstore. Ops needed some car magazines, and I needed the latest Vogue. It would only take about $30 in gas to get there and back.

Robin Doussard is Editor of Oregon Business.

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