Endings and Beginnings

CEOs don’t get paid to watch the grass grow.  So, staring out the window this morning, looking at the Victory Garden sprouting in its raised beds in our front yard here at Timberland is hardly serving my shareholders, which is my fiduciary responsibility.

But staring I am, as Yoda might say.

A few months ago, we announced that VF Corp, a powerful force in our industry would pay $43 a share to our shareholders, acquiring the company and the brand and the culture that my grandfather founded, my father built and I stewarded.  Between Nathan and Sidney and Jeff, we have invested more than 100 years of our living in an idea and a dream and a passion.  And so when we made the announcement, we did so with a wicked strange blend of bone rattling emotions.

How to think about this, as the last sturdy vegetables, flowers and herbs strain towards a September sky here in New Hampshire? We built this Victory Garden a few years ago, and I honestly get deep joy watching my colleagues invest some of their Path of Service volunteer hours to compost and mulch and sow and reap organic produce, which is sold in our headquarters, with the proceeds going to feed the working poor here in southern New Hampshire.  When the idea of paid time to volunteer in the community was an idea, it burned in my gut.  When victory gardens and codes of conducts for ensuring basic human rights went from an idea to a shared passion, things started to happen.  And when shared passion bore fruit, sustainable change began to appear.  One bed of vegetables in the New Hampshire corporate wilderness became a full scale garden, and has continued to spread across the blank, industrial face of our HQ building.  Hardy fruit trees now surround the flagpole in front.  Makes me smile.  And honestly, this morning, generates some tears too.

For three generations, we’ve tried to create and master a weird new kind of modern dance—the one that blends the foxtrot of “fiduciary responsibility to shareholders” with the tango of “authentic brand building,” with the Alvin Ailey contortion of “sustainable for profit business practice.”  Today, having sold the company, I am sitting in the corner office/dance studio of a for-profit business poised on the brink of becoming a truly sustainable enterprise, reflecting, wondering.

Recently, I listened to the acquirer’s CEO addressing Timberland employees, in an open air town hall meeting (we take the 10 minutes of New England summer time seriously here, and so when we can meet outdoors, we do).  It tore my guts out, to sit in the community gathering as a listener, watching my colleagues watching the new boss, wondering what changes are in store for our brand, our business, our community.

I held my breath for much of the 90 minutes outdoors, listening to the new leader speak, watching my colleagues listen.  And then, in best Timberland/New England fashion, the town hall went to work, with questions, respectful but engaged, authentic, old-fashioned civic democracy.  Employees acting like citizens, raising fears, expressing concerns, asking for information.

Made me smile and shake my head.  This is New Hampshire, which means some time too soon, a whole host of slick candidates will parade through our small towns, playing at democracy.  Staged, phony, self-dealing, pandering politicians.  Watching the new guy standing in front of the Timberland community was inspiring—reminded me that the right kind of for-profit business leaders are really accountable, personally and practically, in a way that should be a model for our so-called political leaders.  Whatever this leader said or committed to, his employees will hold him to account.  Not once every four years—every single day.  Engaged democracy—not a fiction or an aspiration, rather a principle in practice, even in a stressful circumstance.

And right on queue, as I was appreciating democracy in actual practice,  an environmental activist in our ranks rose, way in the back, to ask the new guy, the Boss to Be, about sustainability.

“Tell us, please, why sustainability is important to you.”

Wow.  That is town hall democracy the way Rockwell painted it.  Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide—respectful, but a “no quarter granted” question.

And the man with whom I negotiated hard and long for the best possible deal for shareholders stood his ground, and answered, authentically and naturally.  “The answer is simple—we believe that sustainability is good for the business and good for the world environmentally.”

He went on; the answer got more detailed and more concrete.  But I had stopped listening.

For 30 years, we’ve been trying, fighting, struggling, to choreograph the intricate interaction between shareholder value, consumer demand, and social accountability.  I have the scars, and the long list of failed efforts, incomplete outcomes, unrealized dreams and frustrated ambitions before my eyes all the time that reflect this passionate effort.  And yet in this poignant moment of transition, from a business run by my family for three generations to a business to be run by relative strangers–here is the CEO of a 10B$ powerhouse, talking about sustainability simply and easily—good for business, good for the earth.  And he means what he says.  And it strikes me, hard, as I sit there—30 years later, a vitally important conversation has shifted.  Maybe, there comes a time to say, “my job here is finished.”

Used to be, “what in the world does for-profit business have to do with social issues? That’s the purview of the government or the church.”  And yet here, and now—I hear this powerful leader telling my colleagues, announcing to the whole damn world, that the question is not “if” corporations should be involved in questions of sustainability—not “if,” only “how.”  Thirty years later–the corporate conversation turns from “if” to “how.”

Has been one heckuva journey, these nearly 30 years…

Watching the Victory Garden struggle up towards the heavens on this, my final morning at work in corporate America….

  • http://blog.wingtangwong.com/ Wing Wong

    What more can one say but that we need more leaders like that? Aware of their role and their responsibilities and willing to make the tough choices, even if that means it is time for someone else to take their place, yet still watching on and caring about what becomes of what he leaves behind?

    Perhaps leaving one role frees up this unique leader to fill another, to continue to plant the seeds of change. It looks like he and his family have worked hard and done well, bringing a seed to the stature of a mighty tree.

    I hope that many more trees spring forth from this person’s efforts, not just from his efforts, but from all those that will follow.

  • Susan Kaplan

    Thank you for all you have done and for whatever has come next. You have created possiblities for business as an actor on the corporate responsibility/sustainability cutting, sometimes bleeding, edge. Timberland launched efforts that many others, but not enough, have followed. You are a champion and a hero, as much as that may be uncomfortable.
    Again, thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/BG401sav Jacob N. Shepherd

    I feel your pain and admire your courage……26 years ago VF bought Blue Bell, Inc. the company I had been a part of for over 40 years…..in my lowly opinion, it was a travesty and the “who’s buying who” should have been moving in the opposite direction…..but c’est la vie…….and who am I to complain…..I’m still kicking….they’re still kicking…..some of our most treasured products are among their biggest money makers…….enjoy your retirement!

  • Asitha Hingulage

    Sad to read this…I have been following the Timberland story for years & I have always seen Timberland as a company which walked the talk. I am unsure as to what direction the company will take now. I am sure this will be the concern of all involved. Following this now with great interest! And Thanks to Jeff for being a truly inspirational leader in the corporate world; there are only a very few of you…Good luck with your next venture!

  • Vickie Smith

    What a beautiful legacy JBS! Rock on!

  • http://twitter.com/scottyhendo Scott Henderson

    I have enjoyed hearing you speak at Share Our Strength events (and others). Your third generation leadership has broken new ground and helped set an example for other corporations to follow. 

    What is next for you? How will you continue to advance this philosophy/practice now that you don’t have the mantle of CEO?

  • http://www.company2keep.com Cathie Guthrie

    Thank you Jeff – you have helped to give meaning to your
    purpose and to inspire so many others understand what it truly means to realize
    one’s potential by continuing to push boundaries of acceptance and drive standards
    of excellence.  You will continue to do
    great work.

  • A TBL Customer and Fan

    Wow.  I wish my boss thought like that!

  • Daciedoucette

    I love the raw honesty of mixed emotions. Truly a company that I’m proud to partner with! 

  • Ginny Rizzo

    The best to you Jeff and your family. It will all work out. I appreciate the years I worked for you and for the Timberland Co. Thank you for your support and for giving me a chance.

  • Lisa Abrams Kleingarn

    Hi Jeff,
    I am truly impressed by your priorities while leading not only Timberland, but also leading the way for a corporate model that values human dignity and the environment, along with the bottom line.  If all of our business leaders shared your sense of responsibility and accountability, our country, and indeed our world, would be a much better place.  I wish you all the best and look forward to reading about your future endeavors.

    With admiration and best wishes,
    Lisa Abrams Kleingarn (my parents Sue and Bruce Abrams were friends of your parents back in Andover, MA)

  • TEAM

    Greetings all:
    I planted a garden in my yard so I can eat.  I am having a hard time getting food stamps and the food kitchen is to far away.  My neighbors also have gardens.  We are in an urban enviroment where concrete and asphalt and weeds take up the majority of our real estate.
    I have a neighbor who replaced his entire front lawn with a victory garden.  Very smart and economical too.  He and his wife do not need food stamps but I do.
    I said to my case worker If you give me seeds I can feed myself.  I would even share my harvest with others.  Team right!  Together Everyone Accomplishes More!

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