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

Maritz has never sought publicity. Locally, the biggest splash comes from the million-white-lights holiday display. And the company's still gnawing its cuticles over an old rumor that it throws those lights away every year. Yet nobody even blinked last August when an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out that for more than a decade, Maritz has poured its skills of persuasion, plus $4 million in hard cash, into a program to increase attendance at the St. Louis Public Schools.

The kids got pizzas and prizes. The administrators got fêted at Cancun's Moon Palace -- even though Maritz's own chart showed overall attendance at 89.5 percent in 1990 and 89.53 in 2000, with only slight fluctuations in between.

"We consider the Be There program to be very successful," says Wiseman, noting that because the district receives $13.41 in state money per student per attendance day, even slight increases can bring millions in additional funding.

Rick Sealock
Rick Sealock

No matter how grim or mundane the truth might be, there's always the patented Maritz topspin.

Maritz comes by its rosy glow naturally. Founder Edouard Maritz came to this country with the Icarians, a utopian community determined to live in material prosperity and joy.

Reality interfered.

So, in 1894, he opened a jewelry business. During the Depression, his sons James and Lloyd bailed the business out of bankruptcy by using the jewelry for business incentives and service awards. Then they set family precedent by fighting bitterly, splitting the company.

Lloyd took the jewelry side, which foundered within five years. James, an optimist like his father, kept the incentives side and built it into an American religion. Elflike, with huge crystal-blue eyes, James "The Boss" Maritz loved to sell and persuade and tell jokes. Hard work and fun struck him as inseparable. Even after his 1969 diagnosis of ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, he had himself driven to work every day for another decade, spinning his wheelchair down the halls to tease his beloved employees. His eldest son, Jim, serious, kindly and reserved, took over administrative duties; the younger brother, Bill, as optimistic and outgoing as their dad, whipped up the sales force.

By the time Jim was officially CEO and Bill was president, the brothers had sumptuous, near-identical offices side by side on the top floor of the administrative tower.

They spoke only to fight.

If Jim had an idea, recalls a friend, he'd call an underling, who'd present it as his own. Then Jim would ridicule the idea publicly so that Bill would embrace it. Employees called this "the war in heaven." The thunderbolts grew so intense that the board sought, as Maritz so often does, the help of consultants. The consultants announced that one brother had to go and suggested that the younger, more extroverted Bill would have the energy to carry Maritz forward.

Once again, the optimist had prevailed.

Bill surrounded himself with able, like-minded men, eventually making Norm Schwesig, who'd taught his son at John Burroughs School, the first non-Maritz president of the core incentives company. Along the way, Bill delegated heavily, expending his own energy in civic affairs and preaching the gospel of positive thinking.

His older brother, meanwhile, "was deeply disturbed by the way things worked out," recalls one of Jim's good friends, philanthropist Des Lee. "I told him to hang in there, build his own life back. Afterward, he got involved with his son in the safety-shoe business, importing shoes from Taiwan. I don't know whether he was ever able to accept what happened."

Jim died several years ago, and insiders watched with interest to see whether Bill would attend the funeral. He did. But that didn't change his determination to banish Jim's son from the business.

Only one Maritz boy would stand in line for the throne: Bill's son Steve, whose robes were cut from the same cheerful cloth as his father's.

In April of 1990, when Missouri closed I-44 so Maritz could wedge the last section of its pedestrian bridge into place, employees dotted that hill at 3 a.m.

Blankets kept the cold mist off their shoulders as they waited, sipping coffee and chatting excitedly. When the crane finally pulled back, everybody burst into applause, half-eaten doughnuts dropping unnoticed or smashing between their palms.

Maritz is a family.

People who don't do the classic "two-year tour at Maritz" and burn out often stay for decades, pouring their psychic blood into the place and blithely ignoring spouses cynical enough to call it a cult. Working at Maritz means overtime, cramming and intense pressure, but it also means being part of a team of conscientious, extra-nice people whose first goal is getting along with each other. And the friendships forged there tend to last.

People start as tour directors fresh out of college and climb through the ranks, which gives Maritz lots of smoothly acculturated vice presidents in their early 40s and darkens the line between those who come "up from the inside" and those who come "from the outside."

The inner circle is the Maritzes themselves, and employees talk warmly about their Maritz CEO: how he scribbles brilliant ideas on dinner napkins, how he knows their names and remembers their hobbies and their kids' ages. Bill fulfilled the role to perfection: At client dinners, he'd bring a plate and sit for a while with the Maritz staffers in the back of the room; at company meetings, employees leaped to their feet to give him a standing ovation before he even opened his mouth.

« Previous Page
Next Page »