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Bob Nardelli’s Mission Creep
Military Freaks at Home Depot

Business Week's lusty, explicit shill job for Robert Nardelli just last March

The porn industry is a church social compared with what passes for business reporting in the United States, to say nothing of the conduct of CEOs and corporate boards in this age of gilded obscenities. What brings all this to mind today, of course, is the shenanigans Home Depot, whose CEO, Robert Nardelli, has just been fired, or made to resign—with a $215 million severance package, after pocketing another $200 million or so in salary and compensation (the official figure is $153 million by the end of 2005, not including stock options, and not including his 2006 salary, so…). It wouldn’t be surprising if by the time the heist’s entire account is tabulated, Nardelli would have made out with half a billion dollars. This, at a company that keeps a point system to rank employees’ every move, that makes them slave their way to full-time work, and penalizes them at the drop of a pin, to go along with Nardelli’s fetish for military-style leadership (he stuffed the place with ex-military personnel). The business “community” and the media pretend to be outraged by Nardelli’s severance and his “controversial” tenure. Bullshit. Remember this cover-story-cum-centerfold spread in Business Week just last March? It was a lavish, admiring profile of Nardelli and his “military” style. The word “controversial” appears not once in 5,000 words of greased-up flattery.

The piece opens with such fawning tales as that of Don D. Ray, “one tough hombre” who spent three years with the 82nd Airborne Division, commanded a special forces team that followed the U.S.-led invasion into Afghanistan, and now “commands a different kind of operation” as a Home Depot store manager in Clarksville, Tenn., with a 100-member staff, 30 of them former military. “Former soldiers on his staff call him ‘sir.’ ‘In the military, we win battles and conquer the enemy,’ says Ray. At Home Depot, ‘we do that with customers.’” What? Go figure. But so goes the moronic mentality of business that wants to act like it’s at war—and, of course, vice versa, war being America’s primary business opportunity. Because as in war, businesses are out for the heist, and there’s nothing like a good “war” to pillage the hell out of customers—and the corporation. The Business Week piece barely skims over the fact that for all Nardelli’s military idiocies, “Since the day before Nardelli’s arrival on Dec. 14, 2000, Lowe’s split-adjusted share price has soared 210%. Home Depot’s is down 7%,” while anemia has been Home Depot’s middle name on Wall Street. There was, nevertheless, an attempt at setting the Nardelli record straight:

BusinessWeek spoke with 11 former executives, a majority of whom requested anonymity lest the company sue them for violating nondisclosure agreements. Some describe a demoralized staff and say a “culture of fear” is causing customer service to wane. Nardelli’s own big-time pay package, $28.5 million for the year ended Jan. 30, 2005, rubs many workers the wrong way. His guaranteed bonus, the only locked-in payout at the company, rose to $5.8 million in 2004, from $4.5 million in 2003, at a time when Home Depot’s stock price finished below its yearend price in 2000, when Nardelli took over.

But then the piece dives back into Nardelli as the subject of a Entertainment Tonight feature, toadying again over his military obsession, his flag-waving, his childhood this and that: Note the quick passing over of the tensions where the story ought to be focused: at work, among his employees, whose livelihoods in the thousands matter certainly more than that of a single fanatic with a gift for making plunder look like patriotism. Needless to say, the Business Week piece buys right into the Nardelli’s, referring to employees as “troops” and dropping in words like “enemy” and “war” and “mission” and “command” at mentions of markets and customers. An irresistible sample, mentioning James E. Izen a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps “stationed outside Nardelli’s door” as part of a Marine Corps Corporate Fellows program that Home Depot joined in 2002: “During one recent project to help Home Depot hone its motivational message to 317,000 store troops, Izen consulted the Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 on “War-Fighting.” MCDP 1, as it’s called in the Marines, includes a chapter on “developing subordinate leaders,” which Izen found a handy guide for Home Depot workers, too. “It’s about how to out-think your enemy,” says Izen.” But who the hell is the enemy in our malls and sprawls of retail jungle? Why, the enemy is us!

Mission Creep: A Note from James Izen

James Izen is the Marines lieutenant colonel cited in the Business Week article and re-cited this piece. He left the following comment at the Notebooks: “I am the LtCol Jim Izen to which the Businessweek article refers. I’m not writing this to take issue with your opinions (to which I do not agree), but only to point out that my quote, and about 80% (my estimate) of the “quotes” used in that article were taken completely out of context. My reference to “out thinking one’s enemy” was only as an explanation of what we (military folks, not The Home Depot folks) call the “competitive decision making cycle” and was an answer I gave describing a book, not a message that I helped craft for The Home Depot store associates. The “message” to which the author reffered had to do with empowering subordinates. Again in my opinion, there is no possible way the author made an honest mistake there—the interview lasted almost an hour, and the “out-think your enemy” quote was 5 seconds of “sound bite” which had nothing to do with the messaging or what I did at The Home Depot. You all seem like an intelligent bunch (one with which I do not share political opinions, but intelligent nonetheless!); don’t believe everything you read! Yours in the Service of our Nation,
J.E. Izen
PS—I’d be happy to correspond further- please use my e-mail (rockhead51@yahoo.com) as I don’t intend to frequent this website.”

The profile included an interview with Nardelli that only gave him a chance to repeat his own advertisements for himself while letting go unchalleneged another specialty of business journalism: the in-your-face contradiction. After letting Nardelli blabber on about his “higher calling” and “higher mission” (robbing his employees of dignity? Robbing the corporation blind? Making about 2,100 times more money than his low-paid employees?) his interviewer asks: “When is the stock going to break out?” Nardelli’s answer: “I don’t know. I don’t control it.” Then he blames the analysts for not catching on to his wonderful work. Then he says “the numbers speak for themselves. I would challenge you to look at any company that has delivered this kind of performance.” End of interview. No need to challenge the lie. No need to challenge the obscenity. In America, the CEO is royalty. Untouchable—until his downfall becomes inevitable from the weight of his own excesses. And then, the press looks back and stuffs its reports with words like “embattled” and “controversial” and “excessive.”

Note, in all these post-mortems about Nardelli, that you won’t see anyone question his military style much. Oh, there’ll be a few points made about taking the business about goose-stepping the workplace a bit far. But the military is America’s sacred cow, a model, a deity rather than just an institution.

A disquieting connection won’t be made: that banning the military from civilian life isn’t an irrational but a protective, necessary shield against martial habits of mind that don’t belong in civilian realms and shouldn’t belong there under the guises of business. And another disquieting connection won’t be made: that the erosion of that wall between the military and civilian life hasn’t been carried out only through the military’s incursions into our lives (the establishment of a Northern Command for the first time since World War II back in 2002, the expansion of military intelligence at home, the president’s signing, back in December, of a law that gives him the right to declare martial law at his choosing and to override National Guard command in the states whenever he pleases). It’s been carried out through the infiltration of the business world and of schools by the military (ex- or otherwise, it makes no difference), by its “leadership” methods that have no place in civilian life, by its rigid, unbending, meathead mentality that may do wonders in battle (and I stress the word may), but only demean in other settings.

For what it says about America’s business culture, its disdain for labor, its concomitant and misplaced admiration for the military, there is plenty more to this story of Nardelli’s tenure and resignation at Home Depot than meets the eye. But watch. This isn’t a story anyone wants told. The Nardelli show will have no more import by tomorrow than a two-minute segment on Entertainment Tonight.

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