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 isn't exactly a big risk-taker, either.

Maritz Marketing Research deliberated for more than three years before shortening its name to Maritz Research; on the big day, Wiseman was quoted saying, "We've gotten advice from some of the most noted marketers in America and they agreed: Our name was too long."

Bill Maritz's cousin Ray Maritz, the architect who designed the campus, says he offered several modern designs but that the corporation "wasn't quite ready for that." Instead, its leader chose bland, friendly buildings of indeterminate style -- and made the administrative tower nine stories high, rising well above the low uniform roofline of the other buildings.

Rick Sealock
Rick Sealock

Tour directors refer to top officers as the "Maritz masters." Management-level employees are allowed to hold Class B stock but must cash it out if they leave -- and it's not voting stock. Only the family has voting stock. The board of directors is the CEO, Steve Maritz, plus half-a-dozen wealthy white guys who generally agree with him.

"The people who have influence are the people whose opinions get heard, not the people with data," says an employee who struggled to urge more participatory management. "In order to improve something, you have to admit there's a problem, and that's considered negative."

Maritz did experiment with "re-engineering" back in the late '80s, but the concept of inverting the pyramid and putting the needs of the front-line employees first never quite got implemented.

"'Project REACH' is like a curse word in the organization," says one employee who weathered those years. "It was pretty much a disaster." Maritz, world champion of teamwork, returned to a more hierarchical organization, pooling the creative types, bringing in suits to direct the projects and ensconcing the leader at the top of the tower. Official reality remains positive and "customercentric" -- and any challenge to that gets squashed.

Take Paul Eades, for example. A human-resources vice president, he was charged with classifying Maritz's increasing roll of freelancers as either independent contractors or part-time employees. Most of them wanted to be independent contractors. But an automotive specialist earning more than $400,000 a year from Maritz, said Eades, should have taxes withheld from his earnings. Managers exploded -- didn't Eades realize how valuable this guy was to the client, how much money was at stake on this project? Again and again, Eades warned his colleagues about the subjective but ominous tax laws, once even titling a memo "Topless Dancers" to get their attention. But Dick Hurley, president of the performance-improvement company in the mid-'90s, reportedly thundered at meetings, "If anybody impedes a sale, we'll get rid of them."

Eventually Maritz got rid of Eades. He sued, claiming he'd been fired for refusing to break the law, and last January a St. Louis County jury awarded him $168,000. Maritz has appealed the decision "on both factual and legal grounds," says Wiseman.

In the glory days, Maritz's strong suit was creativity -- the bland, inoffensive corporate kind, high-glossed and foil-stamped and buzzing with energy.

Brainstorming day and night, Maritz packaged other people's temptations. It had the art of luxury travel perfected: A navy-jacketed tour director met the group's plane, took care of their bags, guided them to soft chairs or glasses of Champagne while she made sure their rooms were ready. Tickets were already arranged for Wimbledon or the Winter Olympics. Awardees were reminded continually how special they were, how richly they deserved all this.

It was fun even back on the ground in Fenton, breathing the heady air of other people's pleasure. Maritz made easy millions through the '80s with the fat-tired automotive industry, where giants such as General Motors shared program costs with their dealerships and a salesman had time to burn. If closing on the new Ford Taurus meant lolling on the beach in Ocho Rios for a week, by God, he'd do it.

A few slight frowns appeared during the economic downturn of the late '80s, but Maritz rushed in more consultants, shuffled its internal structure and started billing directly for its brain trust instead of tacking performance fees onto the reward merchandise. Inside, the atmosphere cooled a little, lost some of the college fun. But revenues bounced back.

"Work hard, have fun" had always been the Maritz motto. But in the '90s, as the economy shifted, Bill Maritz added a phrase that set everybody's teeth on edge. Now hung in heavy brass letters at the base of the corporate tower, his parting admonition to "Get the job done" signals a shift in client expectations.

The reflective lag time between proposal and execution -- hmm, what did we just sell, and how can we best fulfill that promise? -- has vanished. Today everything must be done immediately, and it must be cutting-edge, its costs pared to bone.

The inevitable solution: information technology.

"In the past, we have been a very custom-offering type of business," explains chief information officer Gil Hoffman. "Whatever a client wanted, we'd find a way of getting it done. But with today's technology, we're going to more of a product-offering type of approach. We can have 80 percent of a solution built from components and then plug in options, faster and at a lower cost."

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