The Bukowski Agency - Spark - Excerpt
How old-fashioned values drive a twenty-first century corporation: Lessons from Lincoln Electric’s unique guaranteed employment program

by Frank Koller


OCTOBER 12TH, 2008 – exactly two months before Bonus Day 2008 – was a Sunday. Around the world, investors of all stripes, Presidents and Prime Ministers, corporate titans and small business owners were holding their breath in shock after what was being called the worst week for the global economy since the Great Depression.

Stock exchanges from New York to Paris to Sao Paulo to Shanghai had closed on Friday afternoon at historic lows, wiping out trillions of dollars in share values after a week when markets collapsed in near-freefall.

In Washington, DC, finance ministers and the heads of central banks from the U.S., Great Britain and other members of the G7 were huddled together to try to hammer out a rescue plan that might stem the financial bloodletting and hopefully prevent a calamity to rival that of the 1930s.

Early Sunday evening, I received an email from Mark Wells, a tool-and-die worker at Lincoln Electric, whom I had visited three weeks earlier in Cleveland.

"Frank ... it was our pleasure to have you in our home and speak with you regarding Lincoln and our family. So much has changed since we last met. The US economy has taken a huge hit and has created turmoil around the world. Lincoln will take a big hit, but it will survive this crisis. I believe that my hours will be cut and our bonuses will be reduced, but in a few years as the economy begins to recover, things at Lincoln will return to business as usual. See you again in December - bonus time is one of the best days at Lincoln. Mark"

When that email arrived, the markets were poised to open in Asia (where it was already Monday morning.) TV news programs in North America were reporting that some kind of bailout effort had been approved in Washington, but few commentators seemed optimistic that it could forestall more financial panic in the coming days and months.

Yet Mark's short note was brimming with confidence that the tough times ahead would eventually pass for his company, himself and his family. A conviction that things are going to be okay is widely shared by Lincoln Electric employees of all stripes, because it's based on an unbroken trust that their future will continue to be as secure as their past. Let me introduce you to a few of Lincoln Electric's believers.

Mark and Rebecca Wells

"I knew that if Mark went to Lincoln Electric, we were in Cleveland for the long haul and I knew that I'd be stuck here, because it's just not the kind of place you leave. His dad worked at Lincoln for more than 30 years and I knew that if Mark joined, we'd be here forever."

For a moment, this was sounding like the start of a sad tale of regret, bemoaning a fateful decision taken years earlier. And stuck or not, Rebecca Wells was telling the story in Cleveland, or more precisely, in the suburb of Painesville, Ohio, 30 miles east on the shores of Lake Erie.

But Wells was also smiling as she looked around the picnic table at three generations of her family on a sunny late-Saturday afternoon in early September of 2008. Sitting to Rebecca's left was Fred Wells, her father-in-law, who worked for 35 years on the factory floor at Lincoln Electric, the largest manufacturer of welding equipment in the world.

At 70, Fred looks to be enjoying the kind of retirement that far too many workers in America can only dream about - the payoff from steady work over decades, work that was well paid and free from worry about layoffs. Now a little thin on top, with a gray beard, Wells is in good health, physically and financially, with only his golf score to trouble him.

On Fred's left, his wife Helen was dishing out green beans to their grandchildren - 16 year-old Nancy, 15 year-old Alana and 12-year old Kurt. They were listening as their mother explained why the family had moved from Dayton to Cleveland so that their father, Mark, could follow his father, Fred, into Lincoln Electric. Eyes rolled when, as an aside, Rebecca proudly recited her kids' recent academic successes.

The Wells family and a dozen or so more had gathered in a friend's backyard this Saturday afternoon to celebrate the successful conclusion of Painesville's Music in the Park series. Most of the adults had worked all summer long as a team of volunteers for their community association to organize outdoor weekend concerts featuring folk, jazz and classical performers.

Finally, Mark rushed up to the table carrying a platter of sizzling barbequed pork ribs, glistening with what he insisted was his widely-acclaimed secret sauce. The ribs were late coming off the grill because Mark had had to race home to replace the first container of sauce he'd spilled all over the front seat of his new metallic blue Mini-Cooper.

"And that's why you're never - ever - allowed - in - my - car," warned Rebecca, who also drives a new Mini.



Back to top