Posts tagged ‘HQ’

Administrative Bloat

Benjamin Ginsberg is discussing administrative bloat in academia:

Carlson confirms this sad tale by reporting that increases in administrative staffing drove a 28 percent expansion of the higher education work force from 2000 to 2012.  This period, of course, includes several years of severe recession when colleges saw their revenues decline and many found themselves forced to make hard choices about spending.  The character of these choices is evident from the data reported by Carlson.  Colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors and, yet, found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers.

Administrative bloat is a problem in every organization.  It would be nice to think that organizations can stay right-sized at all times, but the reality is that they bloat in good times, and have to have layoffs to trim the fat in bad times.

The difference between high and low-performing organizations, though, is often where they make their cuts.  It appears from this example that academia is protecting its administration staff at the expense of its front-line value delivery staff (ie the faculty).  This is a hallmark of failing organizations, and we find a lot of this behavior in public agencies.  For example, several years ago when Arizona State Parks had to have  a big layoff, they barely touched their enormous headquarters staff and laid off mostly field customer service and maintenance staff. (At the time, Arizona State Parks and my company, both of whom run public parks, served about the same number of visitors.  ASP had over 100 HQ staff, I had 1.5).

This tendency to protect administrative staff over value-delivery staff is not unique to public institutions - General Motors did the same thing for years in the 70's and 80's.  But it is more prevalent in the public realm because of lack of competition.  In the private world, companies that engage in such behaviors are eventually swept away (except if you are GM and get bailed out at every turn).  Public agencies persist on and on and on and never go away, no matter how much they screw up.  When was the last time you ever heard of even the smallest public agency getting shut down?

I would love to see more on the psychology of this tendency to protect administrative over line staff.   My presumption has always been that 1) those in charge of the layoffs know the administrative staff personally, and so it is harder to lay them off and 2) Administrative staff tend to offload work from the executives, so they have more immediate value to the executives running the layoffs.

Government Agencies Run For the Benefit of Their Employees

I have written before that the single best framework for explaining the actions of most government agencies is to assume they are run for the benefit of their employees.  This certainly seems to be the case at the FAA, which can't over 10+ years complete a modernization of its computer system or match free, private Internet tools for flight tracking, but it was able to very quickly publish a web application to promote the danger of the sequester.  Public service is not even on these guys radar screens, as they have shown themselves completely willing to screw the public in a game of chicken to get more funding back for their agency

But after Mr. Coburn published his letter on his website, FAA regional employees wrote to blow the whistle on their bosses. As one email put it, "the FAA management has stated in meetings that they need to make the furloughs as hard as possible for the public so that they understand how serious it is."

Strategies include encouraging union workers to take the same furlough day to increase congestion. "I am disgusted with everything that I see since the sequester took place," another FAA employee wrote. "Whether in HQ or at the field level it is clear that our management has no intention of managing anything. The only effort that I see is geared towards generating fear and demonstrating failure." Just so.

Spam Call of the Day

Me:  Hello?
Caller:  I represent your local yellow pages and need to update our information on your account

BIG RED FLAG:  There are many scam artists out there who take your business information and then treat it like a "buy" order for advertising and bill later.  Beware people calling saying they are just trying to "update your listing."   I have also had folks who actually cut and pasted recordings of my phone calls to paste my answers to questions that have not been asked.

Me:  What city are you representing?
C:  we're local
M:  Local where?
C: here
M:  I have 200 locations across the country, what local area are you representing?
C: we're worldwide -- everywhere.
M:  CLICK (me hanging up)

Wow, telemarketing scripts by Kafka.  Unbelievably, they called again 10 seconds later

M: Hello
C:  We represent Phoenix
M:  OK, Phoenix.  I don't have any operations in Phoenix, just my HQ.  I don't want to be listed in Phoenix
C:  You are already listed
M:  Well that explains why I get calls at my accounting office looking for a camping space.  Please remove me.
C:  Can I have your name please
M:  No you may not.  You said I had an account already.  You should know my name  CLICK

Incredibly, my new favorite Indian pitbull telemarketer calls again

M:  Hello
C:  blah, blah, something, blah blah.
M:  Look, please take this down.  I do not want a yellow pages listing in Phoenix.  I would like my Yellow Pages listing removed in Phoenix.  I do not want to pay you any money.  I do not want to give you any information.  I do not want you to call me any more.  CLICK

I do not want it sam I am.  I do not want green eggs and spam. 

I probably still will get a bill.

Is Belgium Collapsing?

The amount I know about Belgium could probably be written on a post card (except for its role in military history, which is substantial due to its location and its famously brave stand against Germany in the opening act of WWI).  So this article about the tremendous split developing between French (Wallonia) and Flemish (Flanders) Belgium was new to me.  In particular, I noted this:

Every year 6.6% of Flanders' GDP is spent on welfare in Wallonia.
The money has not helped the Walloons but turned them into welfare
addicts. Belgium is a case study of how socialist redistribution
schemes lead to economic perversions.

It appears that 60% of Wallonians are either unemployed or on the government payroll (roughly the same thing in Europe), vs. just 28% in Flanders.  And this despite the fact that Brussels and the EU HQ are in Flanders.

Cost of Centralization

This post actually takes me back to the roots of this blog, roots that most new readers probably have not seen much of.  I originally started this blog as place to share my lessons learned in starting, running, and growing a small business.  I still do some of that, but not nearly as much as I would like.

My company has about 25 line managers who each run the operations for one recreation area (these are spread over 13 states).  I give these managers nearly complete P&L authority.  I set base labor rates and most fee levels, and we have a very clear management process everyone follows.  However, line managers have the responsibility to do all the hiring for their area, as well as most purchasing.   One issue that comes up a lot for us as we grow is how much we should centralize some of these functions for efficiency, most significantly HR and purchasing.  In general, I have resisted efforts to centralize.  Here is why.

Human Resources

Several of my competitors, even ones smaller than I am, have centralized their hiring functions.  They have one person (or more) at central HQ who does all the hiring for the company's operations.  My managers often come to me and say "wouldn't it be more efficient to do this hiring in one place?" 
I say no.  The reason is one of accountability.  I want my managers fully accountable for their operations, and poor-performance excuse #1 is always "well, we're struggling because you saddled us with some bad employees."  No one uses this excuse in my company.  If you have an employee that sucks, you hired him/her and you have to deal with it. 

What I did instead was centralize the Human Resource support for our managers, making their lives easier without relieving them of accountability.  So I invested in some new web sites that capture potential workers and drive them to an application database that collects 10 resumes a day  (I am results 1,3, 4 &8 on Google for camp host jobs and results 5, 6, & 7 for campground jobs).  Then I built a system where all my managers can access these resumes.  I also centralized the HR record keeping and payroll processing.


Centralized purchasing has been a harder impulse to resist, but I still do so.  We order a lot of the same supplies in our various locations, and with more and more stores, many of the same goods for resale.  But I still have my local managers buy most of that stuff for themselves.

Am I crazy?  Well, I would have thought so when I was in business school.  After all, its fairly easy to demonstrate that vendors will give better rates for larger orders, and surely it's inefficient from a labor standpoint to disperse purchasing and to duplicate efforts.

First and foremost, though, I am still a stickler for accountability.  Much of my thinking was shaped by Chuck Knight at Emerson Electric, who was nearly always willing to trade centralized cost savings for accountability.  I would much rather my managers have no excuses than save a few pennies on toilet paper purchases.

However, there are a few things we can do.  We are starting to build a shared supplier database, where managers can share particularly good supplier deals with their peers.  We also have centralized purchasing of uniforms and forms, but even here we have been burned.  In the past, we assigned this task to a central person, who eventually built up a huge warehouse of crap it has taken us years to clean out.  Though we don't get quite as good of a deal, we now have printing and uniform contracts with negotiated corporate rates based on our combined corporate usage, but where managers place their own orders and shipping is directly to the field (rather to a central location for reshipment).  Net, we saved thousands in labor, shipping, and inventory getting out of the central break-bulk business.

For our resale items, I get a lot of presure from individual store managers to let them do purchasing of so-and-so product for the whole company in order to get quantity discounts.   I have allowed this in a few cases, but it may cause more problems than it is worth.  I immediately started getting complaints from manager A that manager B was buying all the wrong stuff, or whatever.  Soon, the folks doing the central purchasing started demanding that they needed more and better information, and started asking for written inventory reports from various store managers each month.  Eek! 

I think instead that I am going to mostly stick with the approach of negotiating corporate deals, and having local managers continue to do their own ordering using these deals.  I also work hard to make sure managers understand that in most cases the corporate negotiated products are optional, and that they may buy other products if they think those are better for their locations (I can guarantee that visitors in Northern California, Nogales Arizona, and Central Florida want different things).

Libertarians Even Further Adrift

I think maybe its time for me to stop reading the news.  What else can a good libertarian do when Republicans oppose free trade, support government intervention in the economy, and spend tax money like drunken sailors while Democrats vote for new restrictions on free speech?

The latter occurred yesterday, as the House failed to get the 2/3 majority necessary to pass the Online Freedom of Speech Act, mostly on the strength on opposition from Democrats (you know, those principled supporters of civil liberties).  Politicians have again shown themselves ready to trash the Constitution in order to limit the speech of those potentially critical to themselves.  Apparently, there is reason to hope, since bill sponsors are trying to bring the bill to the floor in a more routine process that would require only a majority vote for passage (which the bill appears to be able to garner).

My only problem with this initiative is that it falls far short of the mark of protecting all Americans.  Right now, only the major media outlets have full free-speech rights in an election.  This bill would extend free speech to the Internet.  Here's an idea:  Why don't we give everyone back their first amendment rights, as I wrote here:

These past few weeks, we have been debating whether this media
exemption from speech restrictions should be extended to bloggers.  At
first, I was in favorThen I was torn.
Now, I am pissed.  The more I think of it, it is insane that we are
creating a 2-tiered system of first amendment rights at all, and I
really don't care any more who is in which tier.  Given the wording of
the Constitution, how do I decide who gets speech and who doesn't - it
sounds like everyone is supposed to:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to
assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

have come to the conclusion that arguing over who gets the media
exemption is like arguing about whether a Native American in 1960's
Alabama should use the white or the colored-only bathroom:  It is an
obscene discussion and is missing the whole point, that the facilities
shouldn't be segregated in the first place.

By the way, I don't want to ever hear from the NY Times again about some company that is being monopolistic.  The NY Times has opposed the Online Free Speech Initiative from the very beginning in a transparent attempt to quash a competitive media that is stealing readers from it at a very fast clip.  I'm sure they hate having this type stuff on the Internet.  And this is the same NY Times that was one of the very few supporters of the Kelo decision because they were in the midst of getting a new HQ via an eminent domain landgrab.  Reason number 635 I don't agree with giving the press more rights than the rest of us have.

More Evidence We Are Lacking A Strong Opposition Party

This is another in a series of my lamentations on this country not having a strong and credible opposition party.  Previously, I have derided the Democrats for not coming up with a viable foreign policy alternative, but they appear just as week on domestic policy issues.

I have made my disdain for Kelo fairly clear.  It has taken a while, but someone other than a major beneficiary of eminent domain (e.g. the NY Times, which got their new HQ building courtesy of an eminent domain condemnation) has tried to defend it.  The defender is Nancy Pelosi, and boy has it become clear why we don't have a stronger opposition party in this country.  The Democrats have chosen this mental midget as their Congressional leader?  Check out this interview, via NRO:


"Q: Later this
morning, many Members of the House Republican leadership, along with
John Cornyn from the Senate, are holding a news conference on eminent
domain, the decision of the Supreme Court the other day, and they are
going to offer legislation that would restrict it, prohibiting federal
funds from being used in such a manner.

Two questions: What was your reaction to the Supreme Court decision
on this topic, and what do you think about legislation to, in the minds
of opponents at least, remedy or changing it?

Ms. Pelosi: As a Member of Congress, and actually all of us and
anyone who holds a public office in our country, we take an oath of
office to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Very central to
that in that Constitution is the separation of powers. I believe that
whatever you think about a particular decision of the Supreme Court,
and I certainly have been in disagreement with them on many occasions,
it is not appropriate for the Congress to say we're going to withhold
funds for the Court because we don't like a decision.

Q: Not on the Court, withhold funds from the eminent domain purchases
that wouldn't involve public use. I apologize if I framed the question
poorly. It wouldn't be withholding federal funds from the Court, but
withhold Federal funds from eminent domain type purchases that are not
just involved in public good.

Ms. Pelosi: Again, without focusing on the actual decision, just to
say that when you withhold funds from enforcing a decision of the
Supreme Court you are, in fact, nullifying a decision of the Supreme
Court. This is in violation of the respect for separation of church --
powers in our Constitution, church and state as well. Sometimes the
Republicans have a problem with that as well. But forgive my

So the answer to your question is, I would oppose any legislation
that says we would withhold funds for the enforcement of any decision
of the Supreme Court no matter how opposed I am to that decision. And
I'm not saying that I'm opposed to this decision, I'm just saying in

Q: Could you talk about this decision? What you think of it?

Ms. Pelosi: It is a decision of the Supreme Court. If Congress wants
to change it, it will require legislation of a level of a
constitutional amendment. So this is almost as if God has spoken. It's an elementary discussion now. They have made the decision.

Q: Do you think it is appropriate for municipalities to be able to use eminent domain to take land for economic development?

Ms. Pelosi: The Supreme Court has decided, knowing the particulars
of this case, that that was appropriate, and so I would support that.

(emphasis added)

This is just crazy.  I guess as a Kelo-hater, I should be happy in this case that the opposition is so weak, but my god it is a depressing revelation for the future on other issues.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of State Sales Tax Systems

Note that this is the newest in my series of "real-world" small business issues.  Other posts in this series include Buying a Small Business and Working with the Department of Labor

One of the things I did not mention in my series on buying a small business was the notion of complexity.  Our business manages over 175 sites with 500 seasonal employees in 10 states.  I have friends who own businesses that have the same sales, and more profit, from working alone from their home.  As I often tell people, I love what I do, working in recreation and spending most of my time in National and State Parks, but it is overly complex for the money we make.

The one advantage of this is that, despite being a small business, I get to observe business practices in many parts of the country.  And one business-related practice that varies tremendously from state to state is sales taxes.  (By the way, before I bought this business, I was a strong Federalist.  Putting most regulatory power in the states slows government encroachment.  It also limits anti-business regulation, because states know that such unilateral regulation will just chase employment across state lines, as California has found out.  However, having to deal with 10 different tax and regulatory regimes every day is causing me to revisit Federalism a bit).

Anyway, based on this experience, I will dedicate the rest of this post to my observations of the good and bad of state sales tax systems.

Continue reading ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of State Sales Tax Systems’ »

Is the Department of Labor "Fair"? Part 1 of a series

Note that this is part 1 of a three-part series. Here are part 2 and part3.

Over the past several years, we have been audited a couple of times by the Department of Labor (DOL). One of the audits was standard procedure (as a concessionaire to the US Forest Service, audits are sometimes required on certain contracts) and one was based on employee complaints. It never ceases to amaze me that some folks never even bother to call our HQ to complain and try to get it paycheck mistakes fixed -- they go straight to the government rather than our labor department if something looks wrong on their check.

Many times I have heard other small business owners say that the DOL is not "fair". If you were to ask me if I think they are fair, I would answer "yes" and "no". If you want to know if DOL employees are generally honest, well-intentioned, and law-abiding, my experience is that they are. However, if you expect, as a business owner, that the DOL will act as some kind of neutral court of law, in which you and your workers have equal status and equal rules of evidence, then you are in for a surprise. The DOL is not on the employers side and doesn't really pretend to be.

This should not come as a surprise to you. Young lawyers out of school generally don't seek out lower government pay scales with a vision of helping businesses manage their cost structures. They join the DOL because they are interested in defending downtrodden workers against rapacious capitalists who seek to exploit them (etc. etc.) The main mission of the DOL is to enforce labor laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). However, overlaying this mission is a strong institutional culture that mission 1A is to defend workers against employers. This culture will have a number of implications in any dealings you, as an owner or employer, have with the DOL:

1. Workers claims will almost always be believed by the DOL, and the DOL will generally not require much documentary evidence to back up workers claims. The flip side of this is that employers claims that contradict workers will always require extensive documentary evidence. For example, we had several weeks of time sheets burn up in an office fire. In cases like this, the DOL will generally always side with the worker's recollection of time worked rather than the employers, even if the time claimed is completely inconsistent with hours worked in all other documented weeks. The burden of proof, in almost any dispute, will be on the employer.

2. The DOL's first answer to any employer's claims of an exemption under FLSA or other labor laws will be "NO". Congress has granted a number of exemptions to labor laws for certain business situations. For example, one that applies to our business in some cases is the FLSA has relaxed standards for overtime for "seasonal recreation businesses". From my experience, the DOL hates to admit that these exceptions apply to your particular situation. Back to the fairness point, they CAN be convinced, but sometimes it takes a lot of work to do so. In part 2 and part 3 of this series, I will give more specific examples of how to do this.

3. The DOL will never point out to you an exemption or saving that you are missing. I know that many people get frustrated with the IRS, but I have actually had experiences where the IRS found a mistake where I had overpaid. I have never had this experience with the DOL. The DOL does not really have very good staff or tools to help employers comply with the law in the most efficient manner. They have LOTS of tools and people dedicated to making sure workers get every bit of what the law guarantees them.

If you recognize this culture and context, and put any frustration that you might have as a tax-paying citizen and business owner aside, you can get a fair shake from the DOL. You just have to be prepared in advance to argue your case and bring lots of evidence to bear. And, if worst comes to worse, and you are willing to pay the attorney fees, you can always refuse the DOL's finding and take the case to a court of law, where there are much more neutral evidence standards.

The next part of this series will discuss further some examples and lessons learned in making your case to the DOL. Part 3 of the series will include a specific example.

Note: These are my observations as a business owner and are not specific recommendations. I am not a lawyer, and, even if I were, I am not your lawyer.