Happy New Year? This is the February issue of the magazine, you might well be thinking. It’s mailed during the third week in January, when the holiday decorations have been put away and resolutions made so rashly at the end of 2009 are already long ago broken. And this guy is spouting Happy New Year?
It’s new to my associates and me. February is the first issue of our 2010 fiscal year.
Last year? Not so great. Oh, sure, a lot of things went right: We were named the best regional business magazine in the country for the third year in a row and won a passel of other awards. During the worst recession of our lives, we attracted some new clients and made a profit. But sales? If you’ve asked me in person, I’ve already told you: They were down a tad more than 20 percent—better results than at a majority of our peer publications around the country, but not nearly what we wanted. We are glad 2009 is over, and we’re sure you are, too.
Heck, we’re glad the whole decade is over. Did you see that the editors at Time called it “The Decade From Hell?”
They did. One of their writers said it was “the most dispiriting and disillusioning decade Americans have lived through in the post–World War II era.” And why not? The decade started with the 9/11 attack and ended with a financial wipeout. In between, we had anthrax letters, two wars, the near-destruction of New Orleans, the Enron and WorldCom scandals, the Bernie Madoff and Tom Petters schemes, a collapse of house prices, the bankruptcies of Kmart, Circuit City, General Motors, and Chrysler, and the eventual unemployment of 16 million Americans—including some of the people with whom I (and perhaps you) used to work.
You and I probably both know people who believe that taxi drivers often give out trenchant wisdom, but I have never been one of them. Yes, there are insightful people in all fields, but I have never thought it was any easier for drivers to derive insight from a series of meter-watching passengers than for teenagers to figure out a path through life by listening to songs on the radio.
Nevertheless, an emblematic moment—a short discussion that for me captured the quintessence of 2009—occurred in a New York taxi on the day after Thanksgiving. The driver, Pakistani by birth but a U.S. resident for 35 years, told me that he had been driving for four months. Before that, he had developed small homes, “but I messed up on the last three, and I am doing this because I have to survive.”
“Eight o’clock,” he sighed as he headed from the Meatpacking District toward Broadway. “Supposedly, this is the busiest shopping day of the year, and look how few people are out. They say the economy is improving, but I don’t see it.”
“Stores are empty,” he said. “Store space turns over often in Manhattan, but now the stores stay empty. I have never before seen ‘For Rent’ signs on Madison Avenue and Park Avenue, but now I do. People can’t buy. I hear stories from my customers about being without work, stories so sad I forget my own problems.”
“Look here,” he said as we turned onto 44th Street. “Here are parking ramps on both sides of the street, and both of them have people with those yellow flags to wave in customers. Until this year, you would never see that. The ramps would be full—and not only on Friday, but every night.” He shook his head. “These are the new jobs of New York,” he said: “Parking ramp flag wavers.”
But do you know what? You and I learned some things last year. We learned how to be more efficient—to cut costs without cutting deeply into the value of the products we offer customers. We learned to cut waste. We learned to hire smartly and sparingly, because it’s no fun to let people go. We learned to separate needs from wishes. And although we didn’t want to learn those things and don’t want to have to apply them, being able to do so could mean that you and I will have a happier new year, even if we don’t get the sizable economic recovery we expect.
And we won’t be alone. Also likely to have a good 2010 are several of the companies featured in this issue, including the Fallon advertising agency, which is staging a long-awaited comeback; U.S. Energy, which helps clients get the best prices possible on natural gas; PaR Nuclear, which is equipping nuclear power plants being built around the world; and a Minnesota-based cluster of world-leading hearing-aid companies that are riding technological advances into prospective prosperity.