The Graveyard Whistlers

Maritz Inc., the St. Louis giant nobody knows, the company that created the gold retirement watch and other corporate incentives, faces the future with a frozen smile

"People are people," says eMaritz president Brian Fitzpatrick, a true believer who's convinced that everyone is motivated by trips and stuff. "There's a plethora of options out there today, so what we have done is offer an equal array of options, a very significant array that would rival what you can get from a Best Buy."

Maritz is going high-tech -- for a low-tech purpose.

Every company within the corporation is generating vast amounts of digitized data, all so it can speed up the trophy delivery -- because in the optimistic, tightly structured, utterly pleasant world of Maritz, there's no incentive to question the assumptions.

Rick Sealock


In cords and turtlenecks that strike the perfect business-casual note, Maritz salesmen sit on pastel sofas in the research building's lobby, legs crossed loosely at the knee, reviewing notes from their secret seminar.

Behind them, a receptionist who's never had PMS ladles small talk from an eternal font of niceness. On the wall hangs a giant world map, its blue oceans and green continents as luridly bright as the illustrations in a children's encyclopedia, its grownup research stations red-starred all the way from Santiago to Seoul.

No delusions of globalism here: Maritz is the world's largest gatherer of customer-satisfaction data, the world's largest provider of incentive travel services, the world's largest provider of integrated motivation services.

Well trained, and younger than the norm, its employees move smoothly past fountains and latte stands, award plaques and company flags and portraits of pale men in dark suits. Over in the travel building, the walls are lined with mementos: a 10-foot alpine horn, a sizable chunk of the Berlin Wall given in gratitude by the Grand Hotel of Berlin.

But the halls are very quiet.

For years, Maritz had 7,000 employees. Then the total dropped to 6,300. Last May, Maritz said declining revenues would force them to do what every motivation expert advises against: lay off 5 percent of its workers. Maritz promptly went out and bought an Australian research company, a German meeting and incentive firm, the McGettigan meeting-management firm and Librix, a big learning-technology firm.

And then it shed a few more employees, in smaller, unannounced purges months after the corporate sweep.

"You could shoot a cannon through the buildings and not hit anybody," says one, an employee of more than a decade who was laid off this fall. "Bonuses are shrinking, and there were no raises last year. We got a day off instead of the usual $50 holiday gift certificate."

In the tradition of genteel poverty, Maritz is even taking in boarders -- Safeco Insurance, Firstar Bank -- on its 250-acre, lake-dotted campus.

Publicly, Maritz admits only that its clients are growing more cautious in tough economic times, then swiftly notes that if ever incentives were important, it's in tough economic times. The corporation, privately held and family-owned, does not provide financials in its annual report. Even when forced in a lawsuit to divulge its net worth, it did so only under seal.

Maritz's accountants have insisted it stop counting the $1 billion or so in airline fares that flows through Maritz Travel every year, but back in 1998, by the old accounting method, Maritz had $2.15 billion in revenue. The next spring, Maritz announced it was shooting for $3 billion by 2000. Maritz spokesman Phil Wiseman says that when you factor in the airline money, this year's $1.3 billion in revenue is the highest ever.

But it's still a long way from that millennial goal.

An affable, balding guy with a pleasant voice and an air of genuine niceness, Wiseman has worked at Maritz for more than 15 years. Asked about ventures that have fallen by the wayside, such as the splashy business-theater spectacles and video productions that used to keep a passel of local actors steadily employed, he says politely, "Business theater is not as robust for us as it once was."

The telemarketing venture? "We grew the company and sold it."

The trumpeted new Heybridge Web company? "It has actually been absorbed into our corporate structure now."

Asked whether there are any famous Maritz mistakes in the company lore, Wiseman looks startled: "I'd be hard-pressed to think of any."

A management expert who worked at Maritz for years calls it "a no-bad-news organization. You just simply don't say it." A former Maritz writer says: "'Positive' was a word you always had to use. The solution was always to put a positive spin on something, and everybody always seemed to get it but me. If the client wanted it balmy in Ireland, it was balmy in Ireland."

Wiseman says Maritz makes a point of hiring "people with a positive attitude, because if they have a positive attitude you can do almost anything with them."

Negatives, meanwhile, slide smoothly into the abyss. There's no company archive; old annual reports aren't kept at hand; photographers aren't allowed on campus.

Years ago, when a Maritz exec introduced himself at his daughter's sorority dinner, a college professor dropped his fork: "Those buildings off I-44? I had myself convinced that must be some kind of Mafia front organization. How could any company be that successful when I never hear its name?"

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