August 1, 2001

Home Delivery

Filed under: Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

A friend of mine is dean of the business school at Emory University. At dinner one night a few years ago, she said she would like for me to tell the story of my newspaper start-up to her students.

Flattered, I tried to envision my audience and asked her, “Oh, you mean your graduate MBA students?”

She laughed and said, “Oh no. The graduate students would tear you apart! You didn’t have a business plan or a five-year growth strategy or start-up capital. They’d think you were nuts. I meant the undergraduate students. They love hearing stories about entrepreneurs who had an idea one day and started into it the next. They’re much more forgiving.”

When I was at the University of Virginia, I avoided math, business and science courses and instead, loaded up on English and History. Later, when I was working at the newspaper in Greenville, SC, the publisher invited me to enter “management” and suggested I pursue an MBA. I first had to take six college-level business courses.

When The Charlotte Observer recuited me, I told the general manager I was about to begin my MBA-level course work and could continue it in Charlotte. “We don’t care that much about graduate schooling here,” he said. “We learn on the job and have our own training program. Your grades will be your performance and results.” Thus ended my formal schooling career.

When I did concoct the crazy idea (seven years ago this month) to start my own newspaper, I tried to design one that could be distinguished from the other local publications. One such characteristic was mailing the paper to all the homes in the area. In so doing, we were able to build readership, foster a sense of community and guarantee an audience to the advertisers. It was a good idea, but it proved to be a very expensive one.

A month after my first issue was delivered, the post office raised its postal rates by 20 percent. But I have doggedly clung to the belief that mailing the paper was crucial. It hasn’t been easy. To encourage quick delivery, we have worked closely with the post office. If neighbors called to report they haven’t received their issue, I would flag down that carrier and ask about their delivery plans. We’ve delivered doughnuts to the post offices for what has generally been excellent service.

Over the years, business consultants have urged me to abandon the mailing costs. We spend more than $100,000 a year in postage. Last fall, we invited some advertisers to lunch to discuss our products. When I asked about mailing, many said it wasn’t as crucial as long as we could get the papers in the hands of our readers. We found a service that could deliver the papers very quickly to our 35,000 home subscribers – for a quarter of the cost of mailing. It allows us to get later news and fresher advertising to our readers.

As postal rates increased again this year, our costs have soared. We’ve also been touched a little by the slowing economy, though we are ahead of last year’s revenues. By cutting postage costs, we can keep on track to repay our business loans, expand distribution and continue bringing you a quality, positive community newspaper each month without a drastic change in our format.

All this is to say, beginning this month, the 35,000 households that normally got this newspaper inside their mailbox will now receive it outside it. As for me, I can close another book in the advanced degree I am pursuing called Successful Atlanta Newspaper Management.

June 1, 2001

Follow Your Bliss

Filed under: Media — schroder @ 3:00 pm

Sometimes when I speak to a group of students, I tell them the story of when I was in high school and college and my father would urge me to follow our family tradition of becoming a lawyer. I watched as my cousins, brothers and friends entered into and prospered from the legal profession, yet I knew deep inside I was not cut out to be that organized, disciplined and steeped in research. My mind drifted toward more creative subjects, such as writing and design.

To deflect the inevitable confrontation with my dad, I began developing a track record in my areas of interest and joined my high school and college newspaper staffs. In my third year at the University of Virginia, I even wrote a column for my weekly paper entitled, “Courting the Law.”

As the time approached to register to take the law boards, I told him I was contemplating not even registering. He urged me to, saying I should “keep my options open.” I did register, but the night before the scheduled test, I intentionally stayed out too late and slept in that Saturday morning. He was not very happy.

I drifted off to be an itinerant journalist, traveling the South, making near-minimum wage. My dad feigned support as best he could, but would occasionally mention that it might not be too late to go back to law school. I told him my dream was that I would one day be publisher of the Atlanta newspapers (hope I wasn’t specific about which ones). Yet, in my heart, I wasn’t positive where I was headed. At one point, when a mentor suggested I move into the marketing and sales side of the newspaper business, I left journalism behind for nearly 10 years. Friends would ask if I missed writing and I’d say I didn’t, but inside, something was gnawing at me.

One day, the editor of my high school alumni magazine asked me to write a profile of fellow alum Clark Howard. I took the assignment, interviewed Clark in the studios of WSB-AM and went home to write a profile. Somewhere in the process of writing a feature story, I felt a passion and an energy I had not felt in nearly a decade. I discovered I did in fact miss writing very much.

I then recalled a stunning series of interviews television journalist Bill conducted with mythology professor Joseph Campbell, who talked about the concept of bliss. “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living,” he said. “When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

Shortly thereafter I quit my job and, with guidance from God working through other people, published my first issue of my little neighborhood newspaper. No staff, no money, but plenty of bliss. My dad kept calling to urge me to bring over the first issue. He grabbed it, sat down and read it cover to cover. He walked out to my car in his driveway, hugged me and said something he had not said in a long time: “I’m really proud of you.” A week later, he suddenly had a stroke and died.

I was then joined by writers and designers and advertisers – all of whom, by following their own bliss and investing their talents and resources, have enlarged my little idea to what it is today.

When I tell this story, inevitably a couple of students will come up after my talk and say I have inspired them to do what they were meant to do, rather than listen to their dads. I am amused to hear that, particularly when I think about how I, in turn, sometimes give my own children too much advice. I suppose I secretly hope they will defy me and do what they really want to do. What I really want is for them to be happy. If they are, I will be very, very proud.

April 1, 2001

Redemption at Breakfast

Filed under: Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

I was a little nervous approaching a breakfast meeting a few weeks ago my personal marketing guru, Al Ries. I’ve been reading books he wrote or co-authored since I discovered his classic, Positioning, about 15 years ago. His logic struck me so clearly that I have been pushing his later writings on employees and clients ever since.

But I’ve been haunted by the fear that, subject to his scrutiny, my own record as publisher of these newspapers would get a failing grade. The purpose of breakfast was to discuss story ideas about Al, but I had a secondary motive. Having been raised a Catholic, I learned at an early age the import of going to church and confessing one’s sins to the priest. In return, the priest would give absolution and God would grant forgiveness. Now as an adult, I felt a strange desire to confess my marketing sins somewhere between the coffee and French Toast.

The short version of his doctrine is: in a world in which we are bombarded by millions of messages, our brains only assign a space a couple of words long for each company or product we care to remember. Volkswagen means small. Mercedes means expensive. Maytag means washers. Xerox means copiers, etc. When products remain true to their narrow “branding,” they succeed. When they morph into other meanings, they fail. Xerox computers never made it. Neither did larger VWs or inexpensive Mercedes. In fact, these diversions hurt the image and earnings of the original brands.

Try to be all things to all people and you will fail, Al preaches. The secret of success: narrow your focus – and thus enlarge your marketing potential.

I used to work for the big daily newspapers. Then I instinctively followed his sermon when I quit and started my own neighborhood newspapers, focused on and even named after the zip code I live in, Atlanta 30306, and later, the one I grew up in, Atlanta 30305.

Everything seemed to be going fine. Then we approached a dilemma: we needed to grow the company, but didn’t want to change its focus. We began to look at the potential business beyond our zip code boundaries and wondered if we wouldn’t do better if we enlarged our coverage – and changed our names. Temptation. Greed. Envy. This fork in the road had all the makings of a morality play.

For months, my staff argued the merits and the risks of changing our original name and focus. Some thought it would show growth. Others argued it would confuse our original readers. In the end, it probably did both. Over time, we have proved that we could survive the metamorphosis, but would this youthful indiscretion forever hinder our marketing purity and potential? It has worried me ever since.

After my first cup of coffee, as our discussion drifted toward neighborhoods, I broached the subject: “You know, my Atlanta Buckhead paper used to be called Atlanta 30305.”

“Yes, I know,” he said dryly and changed the subject.

“What was that?” I wondered. Disapproval? Disdain? Disinterest? I pressed again after the waitress cleared the dishes. I needed to know if my company was continuing to harvest fruit from a poisoned tree.

“I’ve got to ask you, was it a mistake for my company to change its names as such an early age?” He paused, took a sip of tea and looked at a recent copy of my paper. “Here it comes,” I thought. “My penance is on the way. Would I spend my life in purgatory?” I suddenly noticed Al’s face reminded me of one of the priests from my grade school years. I braced for his answer. “Please, give me an answer,” I thought. “I can’t carry this burden any more.”

“No,” he said. “I think you did the right thing.”

“Come again?” I said in shock.

“I think the zip code names were novel, but they don’t a lot to people who don’t live there. They don’t know where the zip begins or where it ends. Everyone knows where Buckhead is. The name connects to a place in people’s mind. Your product has weight just for carrying that brand.”

“But what about Atlanta Intown or Atlanta North, my other papers?” I asked.

“I don’t know enough about Atlanta to know if people use those terms,” he said. “But if people say I live ‘Intown’ or live ‘North’ then it works.”

There it was: redemption. As we exchanged business cards in the parking lot, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. “Could I email you if I have future marketing dilemmas?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.

As I drove away, beaming, I thanked God for email, wishing for a moment that I could email Him for guidance on life’s more important dilemmas. Or at least share a breakfast. “Maybe one day,” I thought. “Right now, I’ve got to write a column.”

February 1, 2001

Nothing But the Truth

Filed under: Life Stories,Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

When the notice for jury duty arrived, I thought perhaps I would escape as easily as I did a few years ago when a lawyer dismissed me – no doubt due to my years of being a courtroom reporter on several Southern newspapers.

But this time, I was a prospect for a rape trial and the lawyers seemed to be concerned about other backgrounds. During voir dire, the process of meticulously interviewing each prospective juror, the prosecutor was most impressed with one man named Kevin Millwood. “Are you the same Kevin Millwood who pitched the one-hit game during last month’s playoffs for the Atlanta Braves?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered politely.

Photo: Kevin Millwood of the Atlanta BravesKevin_millwood

The entire courtroom perked up. “Well, sir,” she continued. “I’ll have you know this is the first time in years that my husband has expressed any interest in coming to work with me.” Kevin made the final cut, as did I. So did a man named Perry Mason, who we later elected foreman. We now had a jury of nine men and three women. Before opening arguments, we were dismissed for lunch.

As we walked down the hall, I envisioned a crowd running up to Kevin to get his autograph or to shake his hand. The tension was building as we silently walked past the courtroom doors. Suddenly I could hear footsteps running down the hall behind us, no doubt one of Kevin’s fans.

“Sir, sir!” a man was calling. I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Mr. Schroder,” the man said to me. I turned around, surprised. “Yes,” I said to the young, well-dressed man. “I just wanted to say hello and tell you how much I enjoy your paper. I just graduated from law school and have to observe this trial. When I heard them call your name, I recognized it because I live in Peachtree Hills in Buckhead and have been reading your paper for years. I just want to tell you how glad I am that you all are doing well now. Keep up the good work.”

I beamed all the way to lunch.

Later, in the jury room, we all sat around reading the morning newspaper. Kevin’s name was on the front page as possibly being one of the players to be traded to Seattle for Ken Griffey Jr. Finally, someone asked Kevin about the possible trade. Another asked about the Yankees series, and we talked about the Mets. But no one had the guts to ask for an autograph.

Finally, on our third day, a talkative woman, who had always sat next to Kevin and engaged him in conversation, began to talk about Christmas shopping. Kevin said he did most of his in the clubhouse when the Nike catalog guy came through. She said, “You keep mentioning the clubhouse, do you work there?” The room fell silent. Surely, she knew what we had been talking about for days.

“Yes,” he said.

“Is it a golf club? Are you a golfer?” We all laughed nervously.

“No, ma’am. I play on the Atlanta Braves.”

“Are you the pitcher?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Oh, well, then you have to give me your autograph.”

Suddenly, everyone else started pulling out items they had been quietly storing: a baseball, a Braves cap, a ticket stub to a World Series game he pitched. Someone passed him a copy of our newspaper, which I had brought for the jurors to read. Then everyone started passing copies of our newspaper for him to sign, including me. He signed the front page of every one.

In our business, we always hope people will hang on to our issues. Thanks to Kevin, I know that issue will be kept for a long time.

Photo: Kevin Millwood when he was with the Atlanta Braves

January 1, 2001

Meeting The Moviegoer

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories,Media — schroder @ 3:30 pm

In 1977, I returned from my junior year at college and hurried to the funeral of my Great Aunt Bolling, I fell in with other latecomers behind the casket being wheeled down the aisle of the church. A distinguished gentleman was in front of me. He turned, caught my eye and nodded hello. He seemed somehow familiar. At the burial, my father introduced me to him: “Meet your cousin, Walker Percy.”
I had heard Walker’s name spoken with reverence just a few months earlier by fellow English students at the University of Virginia. During literary sessions at my fraternity, passages from his novels had been read out loud, alongside excerpts from William Faulkner. But I had not yet joined the ranks of his devotees. I wasn’t even aware we were cousins. It turned out we were related by marriage, through the very woman whose funeral we were attending. But in the South, even this tenuous a relationship is enough to call someone “cousin” – and to ask a favor.
Hearing I wanted to be a newspaperman, he set up an interview for me with his famous hometown newspaper in Greenville, Mississippi. I landed the job at the paper and the next day began my lifelong interest in Walker’s writings by spending a Saturday with him and his family at their home in Covington, Louisiana.
That fall, I vowed to read all of Walker’s novels and went to the college bookstore and ordered first editions. His second, third and fourth books were easy to locate. I purchased them for less than $10 each. But the store manager advised me not to buy the first edition of his prize-winning first novel, “The Moviegoer,” because sellers were asking $50. Today, it sells for $2,000.
At the time, both the price and the premise of the book seemed just out of my reach. I had committed my college years to enjoying every moment because I knew the experience was a short one. I reveled in all I saw and everyone I met. I was on a search for meaning every moment I was there.
Life beyond college had no roadmap or defining limits. And for a creative type like me, finding meaning in the drudgery of the everyday was a daunting challenge – the same one that haunts this perplexing book’s narrator, Binx Bolling – named perhaps for our relative.
Every few years, when I would feel lost in a holding pattern of despair, I’d pull this novel off the shelf to remember that the mere act of searching for more meaning in life makes it worth it.
When Walker autographed my first editions, I promised I would return with a first edition of “The Moviegoer” and thank him for helping me start my career as a newspaperman. But I moved, changed jobs, married, had children and life became all too ordinary in its busyness.
One day, after a pre-dawn business meeting in Buckhead, I picked up the morning paper. Walker’s obituary was on the front page.
I was crushed. I had allowed myself to be swallowed by the everyday. That morning, as I trudged into an office building with thousands of other seemingly uninspired employees, I vowed to do better. I promised I would begin a search for a more meaningful job, that I would find a way to thank Walker publicly and that eventually I would find that autographed first edition of The Moviegoer to complete my collection. That final search, at least, continues to this day.

Lucky Seven

Filed under: Atlanta,Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

This month marks our seventh year of publishing our community newspaper. Given that we have made only minor mistakes in those years, I would have to call this enterprise a lucky one – so far.

Of course, there have been some close ones.

In one of my first columns back in 1995, I was clumsily trying to thank a former girlfriend with whom I had just broken up for all the help she had provided me in starting up the newspaper. Unfortunately, my thanks were expressed a little too eloquently and – in combination with heavy use of the past tense – many of my readers thought she had died. I had to correct that in the next edition, which was a painfully long month later.

We’ve always taken pride in “family-safe” newspaper. Because we deliver to so many homes, we feel we have to be careful not to include information that might be offensive to children. One story about businesses on Lindbergh referred to the “golf club” at the end of the street. Our crackerjack editors proofed every story several times before we went to press. I looked over that issue right before it went out the door and thought for a moment about the golf club. I wasn’t aware of a golf club on Lindbergh, but before I could do anything about it, my phone rang and I forgot about the reference. It was only after a few readers called asking about it that our team discussed the story and we realized the writer meant to say Gold Club. “Oh well,” we said. “Just another effort on our part to protect our readers from sex, politics and crime.”

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about dating that my ever-vigilant editor vetoed. “If this ran, you’d never date again!” she said. Another time, she corrected a reference to my ex-wife that forgot to mention the “ex” part. Thanks to Jan for protecting my single status.

None of these were as serious as the time I worked at The Greenville News in South Carolina and we published a full-page ad for a grocery store that had a sale on “Chicken Things” rather than thighs. As one of the press room guys said later, “I’ve eaten many part of a chicken, but I have never and will never eat that part!”

One time in Charlotte, the The Observer newsroom ran a story about a city councilman named James Brown. Late at night, one of the younger editors went to grab a photo of the Caucasian gentleman, but instead grabbed and published a photo of the King of Soul with his resplendent huge grin and big hair looking out from a serious story about local sewer repairs.

But the worst mistake I witnessed was in Augusta at The Chronicle, when we ran the obituary of Nelson S. Jackson, but a late-night copy editor ran the photo of Nelson T. Jackson instead. Nelson T., it turned out, was very alive and well, and also a member of our then-editor’s Rotary Club. The editor quietly took his usual seat at that week’s Rotary Club and endured many embarrassing remarks. But he was most annoyed when Nelson T. walked into the Rotary late and the entire club stood and raised their hands and greeted him with shouts of “Lazarus, Lazarus!”

When I first joined the Greenville, Mississippi newspaper and was looking forward to my first by-line in that afternoon’s edition, a fire suddenly broke out in the press room and the paper didn’t get published for two days. The publisher looked suspiciously at me, the newest and most questionable hire. Years later at the Fulton County Daily Report, my first day on the job led to several computer crashes that pushed us way past deadline by several hours. My college-age designer sidled up to me in a particularly tense moment and tried to reassure me.

“It could be worse, Chris,” he said. “Oh yeah, how?” I asked.

“We could be naked and on fire!”

I wasn’t reassured, but I did laugh. After nearly 25 years in the business and seven years “on our own,” here at Schroder Publishing, I am happy to report that we can still laugh. Even in these serious times.

October 1, 2000

Our Date with Miss Universe

Filed under: Family,Fatherhood,Media — schroder @ 2:00 pm

A few weeks ago, my editor forwarded an e-mail from a New York public relations firm asking if we’d interview Miss Universe 1999 when she was in town for a “hair show.” Trying not to act too eager, I counted to two before running to Jan’s office to volunteer.. She looked at me rather skeptically, as an editor should, wondering if I was the best reporter to cover this important breaking story.

“What experience do you have in matters of beauty, hair color and makeup that might make you qualified for this assignment?” she asked..

“Um,” I stammered. “I used to have to blow-dry my long hair in high school, I once put makeup over a pimple and I look at the covers of beauty magazines when I’m in the grocery checkout lines.”

She wasn’t impressed.

“I’m also your boss,” I suggested with a smile.

As the day approached and as I read more about Mpule Kwelagobe, I grew a little nervous. She had been crowned Miss Botswana a few months out of high school and a few months later crowned Miss Universe, and had since traveled to more than a dozen countries; I realized I wasn’t even exactly sure where in Africa Botswana was. I slinked back into Jan’s office.

“I’m having trouble coming up with questions to ask Miss Universe. What if she doesn’t speak much English? I don’t even know what language they speak in Botswana,” I said.

She scribbled a few questions on a pad and dismissed me, saying, “You’d better not disappoint me, Schroder!”

Me_and_miss_universejpg_2

My son, Thomas, was going to be in town that day, so I asked him if he would like to accompany me and ask a few questions. “Maybe you should leave this to me, Pop,” he said. “After all, I am only four years younger than her. You are old enough to be her …”

“Her photographer,” I said. “That’s it. You ask her questions and I’ll take photographs.”

As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. Mpule spoke fluent English with a charming British accent. Botswana is the second-richest country in Africa and a former British colony, and she had excelled in the British-style schools. Mpule was a live wire and loved to talk.

Thomas_and_miss_universejpg

She talked about how she had postponed attending the University of South Africa on an engineering scholarship to be the first representative from her country ever to enter the Miss Universe pageant. She told us about the infighting at the pageants, the host newspaper in Trinidad that said she would never win, about how she was the first winner to ever walk away with a commercial contract such as hers with Clairol. She is most passionate about the scourge of AIDS, which affects 1 out of 5 young people on her continent, and how she hopes to fight it.

When she left Botswana for the pageant in May 1999, 10 people saw her off at the airport. When she returned, 250,000 people – nearly her entire country – were at the stadium to cheer her. “More people than turned out to see Bill Clinton or Pope John Paul or Nelson Mandela,” she said with pride. Recently, the political parties in her country have been asking her to run for office, but she has put them off.

“I want to return to college in a couple of years and then, perhaps when I turn 25 or 30, I will run for president of my country. You will have to come and visit my country then,” she said.

Thomas looked at me, no doubt hoping I would book travel reservations on the spot.

“You’ve got my vote,” I told her. Thomas and I walked away with photos, autographs and a heightened respect for Botswana. As if she hasn’t won enough awards, Mpule has earned a permanent spot on Thomas’s personal Web site.

Photos: Left, Chris with Miss Universe, Mpule Kwelagobe, and Thomas with her, right. I think she’s happier with Thomas … what do you think?

May 4, 2000

Going Back to Greenville, Mississippi

Filed under: Atlanta,Media — schroder @ 8:12 pm

I got a late start one recent Saturday morning and was quietly enjoying my second cup of coffee. It was 10:15 when I turned to the obituary page. There it was: a news announcing the death two days earlier of Betty Carter.

I drew a deep breath and read the familiar recounting of her years of fighting Huey Long in Louisiana and then moving with her more famous husband, Hodding Carter, to Greenville, Miss., to start a newspaper and battle, among others, the Ku Klux Klan.

Chris_in_greenville

Suddenly, I was transported back 22 years to the time I first walked into the newsroom of this famous little newspaper, Delta Democrat-Times of which she was then publisher. It was there this queen of a woman of such elegance and old New Orleans charm had edited or co-wrote her husband’s editorials on racial tolerance, for which they won a Pulitzer. It was under her tutelage that I hammered out my first editorial.

I remembered how she and her husband came to Greenville at the invitation of poet and planter William Alexander Percy, around whom an unusual renaissance of writers gathered in an isolated river town of 50,000. It was William’s nephew, novelist Walker Percy, whom I met standing in line at the Atlanta funeral of the woman through whom we were slightly related. I thought about how I had been back to visit all my other stops on my Southern tour of newspapers, but had never been “back to Greenville,” a phrase recently hammered into my psyche by a Lucinda Williams CD that played in my car for weeks.

I went online and tried to find the funeral arrangements, but had no luck. I called the newsroom at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and reached a woman in circulation, no doubt mired in a Mardi Gras glaze, whom I begged to read me yesterday’s paper. “The funeral,” she read, “will be Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Greenville, Mississippi.”

I called Delta Air Lines: a flight was leaving in 50 minutes. I made it, sweating, five minutes before departure. I rented a car in Memphis and raced down Highway 61, arriving at the church with 10 minutes to spare. I took a breath, looked around and recognized faces I had not seen in 21 years: the features editor, a photographer, a fellow reporter, several Percy “cousins,” Betty’s sons, Hodding Jr. and Philip. At the cemetery, I had a few minutes to chat with a few. Others got away before I could reminisce.

I drove around the courthouse and police station and jail, where all the characters had once seemed larger than life because it was after all, Mississippi, and it was my first job. I visited the newspaper, which hadn’t changed. Sallie, the managing editor, was there and still on the news desk.

I drove past the old carriage house where I first lived as a single man right out of college. A little more than a year later, I drove out in a U-Haul truck with a dog, a cat and a wife. The carriage house was still shadowed by the same bamboo, oak and magnolia trees that had cooled the hot summer days of our first few weeks of marriage in 1979. As I again drove out east on Highway 82, I was struck by how I now live single again in Atlanta, where everything is about hectic change and rapid growth. I felt comforted to go back to Greenville, where hardly anything or anyone had changed and yet these erudite gentle folks who once were so much a part of my life still move through life at their own rhythm at a pace we in Atlanta can only remember.
Photo of Chris Schroder, staking out Greenville, Mississippi, police station.

February 4, 2000

Communication Breakdown

Filed under: Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

A few years ago, a salesman (who was also a cousin) from one of those new telephone companies talked our newspaper into switching our local and long distance service to them. Promising huge percentage reductions in our phone bill sounded great, but whenever we needed work done on our lines (which in our growth stage was frequent), they had to call our old service provider (you know, those Big Guys that used to be our only choice).

Weeks later, one of the Big Guys would show, pull out a piece of paper and say, “Oops, looks like your provider ordered the wrong phone line to be worked on. They’ll have to call back and send another order through and then we can come back and work on it.”

“Hey,” I said to this same technician who had serviced us when we were with his company. “You used to show up the next day and if we had to add or change our order, you’d do it on the spot. Now it takes weeks of bureaucratic requests to get anything done.”

He then gave me a wry smile, leaned back and whispered to me: “You’d get that kind of service again if you would switch back to us.”

So, after a year of hassles, we finally switched back to the Big Guys and all was well again. Except the other company kept billing us for service we no longer had. The bill got up towards $40,000 with fees, interest, penalties, etc. I kept slipping the bills under the windshield wiper on my cousin’s car, who parks in the same lot as I do. He said they had a new billing computer and they were having trouble communicating with it.

Last summer, another new phone company wired our building and promised even better rates. Always willing to support the little guys (as we are), we signed up. But they had a miscommunication between their sales and production departments, resulting in our office having no phone service for a week. Talk about stress: I spent each day on my cell phone, working my way up the management chain of this new phone company, begging for help. Finally, I got the cell phone number of the company’s vice-president, who was in a convention in New Orleans. Soon, service was restored and my employees could once again talk to our customers.

A few months ago I went home and found that line not working. Thus began a four-week odyssey of calls to customer service reps and conversations with technical people who came to my house.

For two days, I did have service, but I started getting calls for some woman I did not know. Then, when I called my daughter, she looked at her Caller ID and asked if I was dating this same woman. I assured her I wasn’t. My next call was from the mystery woman herself, who told me she too had been without service for two weeks and I somehow ended up with her line.

My line went silent the next day and stayed that way until one of the techs who reappeared at my house asked what business I was in.

“Newspapers,” I said.

“I didn’t say this,” he said. “But if you wrote a story about this, you’d get service real quick.”

That afternoon, I called the media relations department and explained to a nice woman I was writing a story about several households – including mine – being without service for weeks at a time. The woman didn’t believe I had been without service for a month. “Let me check into is and I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said.
The next day she called and said her boss had verified my story, dispatched three trucks to my street and told them not to go home until I had service restored.

That night, I picked up my phone and called my daughter. She was happy to hear I had moved back home. Now that I have phone service, I think I’ll stay.

September 4, 1999

Glenda the Mailwoman

Filed under: Atlanta,Life Stories,Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

Last month I prepared for my annual two-week vacation with my kids. As always, I wrote a note to my friend Glenda and left it in my mailbox. Glenda is my postal delivery person. The day I left, I opened my mailbox and pulled out a nice note from Glenda. She confirmed the dates she would re-deliver the mail and told me to have a great vacation, and punctuated it with her trademark signature and happy face.

These days I love the post office, but it wasn’t always that way.

When I first met the previous owners of my house seven years ago, they walked me around the yard explaining all the quirky things about the place. One of the more endearing aspects was their relationship with their mailman. There was no mailbox at the house, so most days, he would walk up the 39 steps of the driveway and leave the mail on top of an old milk jug, carefully placing a sea shell on top of it so it wouldn’t blow away. If it looked like rain, he would continue up the remaining 13 steps and slip the mail inside the screen porch.

I moved in the house on a Monday and happily walked up my driveway and stopped at the milk jug: no mail. I continued up to the screen porch and discovered a letter from my postman hanging from my door knob. It said he was invoking a post office regulation requiring the installation of a street-side mailbox.

Figuring I had a grace period, I came home the next day expecting to see a pile of mail. There was none. I called the post office, but they offered no help. After 10 days of no mail, I gave in and erected a mailbox. There was still no mail. I was furious. I had to sign a form to release all the mail.

To get back at my postman, I often parked directly in front of my mailbox so he would have to get out of his truck to drop the mail in. Pay backs are hell.

A couple of years later, I started this company. I keep close tabs on the delivery of our newspapers. I’ve monitored when my papers arrive at the local post office and then called a network of neighbors to track the wave of delivery. I’ve driven around the neighborhood, flagged down a postman and asked why he hadn’t delivered my papers yet when his associates had done so days earlier.

Then the post office assigned Glenda to my route. I detected the difference immediately. She delivered my paper early and wrote a note alerting me that she was delivering my papers to her route that day and including a schedule of when her associates would finish delivering theirs. Some days, I might only get one magazine or an advertising flier in my mailbox. But Glenda will spruce it up, writing “No bills today!” on my label. She always includes a happy face.

Sometimes when our printing schedule results in a late delivery to the post office, I would take boxes of doughnuts to the local distribution facility for the postal workers’ 9 a.m. break. (No, it wasn’t a bribe – there is a postal regulation against that.) I would include a letter thanking the nice delivery people for their outstanding work. Glenda will write a thank-you note the next day.

I always wave when I see Glenda making the rounds in the neighborhood. She has a wonderful smile and a happy thought to share. She says she enjoys reading our newspaper. I hope she reads this page. Thanks, Glenda (and all your fellow postal professionals), for all you do.

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