Peter Bigelow

A forgotten tome from the 1960s has practical implications for managers and executives today.

Do you remember Robert Townsend? Most likely not, especially as he is not someone who was in our industry or extended supply chain. In fact, Robert Townsend made his name in a very different type of business as CEO of a then-unknown company which was losing money before he successfully turned it around, making it not only a household name but a very profitable one at that.

While those in tech may not know who Robert Townsend was, they certainly know his company. And whenever I rent a car from Avis I ask the clerk at the counter, “Do you know of Robert Townsend?” “No,” they always respond, to which I reply, “You should; you would not be working here today if it were not for him!”

Bob Townsend was the head of Avis in the 1960s. He turned around the rental car company, positioning it as an industry leader with the famous “We’re number two … so we try harder” marketing campaign, and wrote a “how to” management book titled Up the Organization that spent months on The New York Times best sellers list.

What made his book so useful were two things: First, the information was a simple, easy-to-understand mix of common sense wisdom and practical motivational management theory. Second, the book was written like a series of business memos, so each topic was short, to-the-point and presented in a way anyone could understand and follow.

While Townsend made his name years before I started my career, his book was the go-to management bible for decades. Everyone from middle managers to senior executives at the first two companies I worked for – each a large, publicly traded corporation – swore by Townsend’s little paperback. A rite of passage into management was your boss or mentor bestowing a copy of Up the Organization so you, too, could become a successful manager. In my own career I have employed many of the concepts and effective ideas learned in Townsend’s book, while operating during a different time and within a different industry.

Why, then, don’t people remember Robert Townsend? In part, because they are seeking “new” solutions from business celebrities and high-visibility executives from the high-flying companies of the moment. Hearing how a trending company does things is always interesting, even if its success is due more to dumb luck than sound business concepts.

But one other reason Townsend may not be remembered is his concepts were so simple! No magic in what he did and preached. No drama of being on the edge of success or failure. Instead, Townsend wrote about how to deal with the basic blocking and tackling that all managers have to deal with every day, everywhere, regardless of industry, company size or location. The magic of his book was to offer some ways to turn mundane tasks into opportunities to unite staff, better communicate, build organizations, and beat the competition. Simple!

To turn around Avis, Townsend did the little things. So when I ask that Avis counter person if they know who he was, I also take note to see if they look at me, call me by name or use some of the other simple gestures to “engage” customers as cited in Up the Organization. I pay attention to see if they are “trying harder” for my business. More often than not, they fail at both.

Those basic concepts – engaging and trying harder – are just a couple of the simple things we all should be doing – and could do – to differentiate our businesses from the competition, however. Grand strategy, investment in the latest and greatest, and all the other big things that are vaunted as essential in our industry may contribute far less to an individual company’s success than paying attention to the basics of customer service, basic efficiency, communication and visible hustle to earn customer’s loyalty and let them know you are indeed “trying harder” for their business.

While none of this is rocket science, it is amazing how easily we can forget the simple basics. Slogging through day-in and day-out problems, challenges and interruptions make it too easy to focus only on throwing the long bomb, while forgetting that without basic blocking and tackling even a short pass most likely would be for naught. Those basic, simple concepts are as applicable today, 50 years after they were written.

As we enter the final stretch of the year, it may be a good time to take a pulse as to how well our organizations are doing with the basics. Are we engaging customers? Are we communicating clearly and consistently? Are we “trying harder” to win customers’ business and loyalty? If not, it might be worth a quick trip back to the future to revisit some basic concepts that helped a guy named Townsend in the 1960s transform his company into a winner, and apply those simple concepts to make yours an extraordinary company of the future.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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