Raging against the machine (not so much)

Corporations have become easy targets for criticism and even outrage. Railing against them has actually spawned a chic cottage industry with multiple offshoots and subsidiaries.

Corporations are first and foremost a business entity or construct. Possibly the most important aspect of this business structure is that corporations exist separate and apart from their owners.  We think of corporations as giant, impersonal behemoths; uncaring and unfeeling. Surprisingly, many corporations are quite small.

At one time in America, corporations took care of their people long after loyal employees retired. Iconic American business like General Motors and IBM set the standard for what corporate culture entailed. When workers retired after decades of service, a pension was waiting for them to carry them through their retirement, comfortably.

A recent candidate for president—the guy who lost, actually—got himself in hot water when he insisted that corporations are people.

Corporations shoulder a great deal of responsibility. They represent the hopes, the dreams, and the futures of many people. Sadly, their behavior, like the behavior of people, disappoints, frustrates, and at times goes way beyond being acceptable and sometimes becomes criminal.

I’ve been a basher of corporations. I still often use the term “corporate” as code for things I deplore that characterize many corporations; that they can be uncaring, impersonal, tight-fisted, overly conservative, lacking creativity, unbending.

Corporations may or may not deserve personhood. They are, however, made up of actual people who wield tremendous power for doing good, or merely toeing bottom line principles and maximizing profit. Some corporations recognize their social mission and make good on it.

The bottom line matters to corporations. If unprofitable, eventually they’ll go out of business. That’s what happened to many companies that at one time were household names but are no longer with us; remember Woolworths, Eastern Airlines, Compaq, and E.F. Hutton? Profitability is a corporation’s lifeblood—without it, eventually they’ll cease to exist.

The Walgreens Distribution Center, Windsor, CT.

Wednesday I journeyed to Connecticut and back to observe and better understand how one American corporation—in existence since 1901 and currently employing 240,000 people across the country—has made a commitment to being a leader by doing good.

Walgreens began humbly with just one drugstore in Chicago. They now blanket the U.S. with more than 8,000 stores and recently expanded into Guam and Puerto Rico. Each one of their stores purportedly carries more than 18,000 items.

What I think of when I think of Walgreens is their lunch counters (now discontinued) that every store used to have, at least in greater-Chicago, where our young family lived when Mark was small. Short on resources like many families in their early days, the three Baumers thought lunch at Walgreens for cream of mushroom soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, with a milk shake, was quite a treat back in the early 1980s.

Supplying 8,000+ stores presents a logistical and distribution challenge to say the least. Keeping stores well-stocked and customers happy is important if Walgreens wants to stay in business. Yet, the company’s focus is on more than merely being efficient and profitable.

In 2002, Walgreens senior vice president of supply chain and logistics, Randy Lewis, began a program aimed at providing opportunity to the disabled to work side by side with typical workers. The result was the development and opening of two distribution centers whose staff is approximately 40% disabled. The Windsor, CT center where I was yesterday is the second of Walgreens’ centers built specifically to accommodate the employment of people with disabilities. Their first one is in Anderson, South Carolina.

Disabled individuals are a key element of the American workforce, especially what we know about the aging of our working population. They represent a pool of considerable talent that is currently under-utilized—the employment rate of working-age people with disabilities remains only half that of people without disabilities (38 percent compared with 78 percent in 2005). While there are challenges to employing people with disabilities, Walgreens has faced these and in the course of doing so, has found that it simply makes good business sense. Based upon standards measured company-wide, the Windsor distribution center is Walgreens’ most efficient in productivity, accuracy, turnover, and morale.

What blew me out of the water during our tour was when the Walgreens outreach manager told our group that Walgreens had spent $20 making accommodations in a center employing close to 800 people, with 40-45 percent of their workforce consisting of people with disabilities. I thought he meant $20 dollars per person on average, so I asked—no, it was “$20 dollars” total!! So much for the excuse that some corporations continue to use in not hiring talented workers who happen to have a disability, because it costs too much!

Walgreens is now the gold standard for disability inclusion. They are leading the way for many other American corporations, demonstrating best practices in hiring people with disabilities. And it all began 10 years ago because one person had the vision and dared to make a difference.

Corporations can be a force for good, or just merely about profit. The people behind the logo can steer corporations to do the right thing by taking small steps towards making society a better place.

Is there something you can you do where you work to influence your employer to adopt something both profitable and promoting what’s best for people?

There’s no “them” at Walgreens.

Walgreens’ most efficient distribution center.