Friday, January 20, 2012

"I'm Building A Ship"

Once upon a time, in the later 1980’s, I lived and worked in the small city of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. This town of 9,000 was the county seat of Door County which was, and still is, one of the largest destination tourism areas in the Midwest. I ran the County’s Chamber of Commerce.

There were 3 sizeable shipbuilders in the city—between the 3 employing about 2,000 workers. One, Peterson Builders was the lead contractor for a new series of minesweepers for the U.S. Navy. These are fiberglass sheathed, wooden hulled vessels (you don’t want much steel on a ship which neutralizes mines, many of which have magnetic detonators). Peterson was expert at designing and building these vessels.

It was quite an event whenever one of these ships were launched or commissioned. There would be dignitaries from Washington and Madison in attendance and I was fortunate to participate in several of them.

One of my all time favorite stories though deals with another organization in our community called the Sunshine House. This was a sheltered workshop for adults with developmental and other disabilities. It was an amazing place full of people engaged in work that was both therapeutic and meaningful.

The Chamber contracted with Sunshine House to do quite a bit of our “fulfillment”. We would get thousands and thousands of inquiries from tourists for information on lodging and activities in our area heading up to the busy tourism season. We found that we could contract with Sunshine House to put mailing labels on our “vacation planning guide” and mail them quicker and cheaper than we could do it in-house. We’re talking 100,000 or more pieces of mail over a several month period.

One day I was touring the Sunshine House. They had just picked up a new contract for Peterson Builders. It seems as though the decks of the ships were made of white oak and needed pegs to hold them together—the pegs were about ½ inch by 6 inches. Another company had been making them but their quality wasn’t very good and their price was quite high. So, Sunshine House bid on the contract and received it and started to make the pegs out of scrap white oak from Peterson.

OK, to make this long story short, as I was touring the facility I stopped next to a young man who was sanding one of the pegs. I stopped and watched and then asked him, “so, what are you doing?”

And instantly he answered me, with a light in his eye and a smile, “I’m building a ship.”

I’ve thought of his answer many times over the years. When I was working in economic development I knew that I was “building a community”. When I was a consultant for Ford Motors I knew that I was “building a car company” or “building a car dealership” even though I was helping a dealer do a better job of selling more vehicles. When I sold cars, I thought of myself a “building a dealership” rather than selling cars or just making commissions.

Yeah, “I’m building a ship.” That young man was a professional. And he was right. For building that ship is the sum of all the parts that go into it and his part—a humble white oak peg—was a vital part without which the whole ship would not come together.

Let’s build some ships. Maybe those politicians who constantly bloviate with the new buzz-word “jobs creators” will get the message.

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