In my book, The Business Zoo, I often compare and contrast how large public companies handle an area versus small, private firms. Some of the most vivid and striking differences involve how they motivate and reward their employees. Large, private firms, with all their Human Resource people, are often more rigid and follow exact guidelines. Private firms, historically, have more creativity and latitude. Here is a favorite example from my days at the very private Donn Corporation.

The Men’s Outing and the Women’s Dinner:  (Warning: These activities occurred and were named before our era of political correctness.)

The Men’s Outing was just that. All the 250 plant and office men at the main Ohio plant, on a Friday, traveled by buses to a nearby state lodge.

The bus ride down started at 7am and was always a treat especially for any innocent office guy who accidentally ended up on one of the plant guy buses. Beer was consumed before the ride as the neighborhood bar, Kelly’s, opened, probably illegally, at 5:30am that one special day each year. Beer was consumed on the bus ride. Beer was, at times, discharged or eradicated on the bathroom-less bus. Beer cans, empty, occasionally were ejected from the bus window, always in a safe and thoughtful manner. I know this firsthand.

My first year at Donn as I walked to the office guy bus, one of the plant managers grabbed me. His nickname for many reasons, was the Bear, and I knew from day one, he was not fond of me. Whenever I passed him in the Donn hallways, I would say Hi and the Bear would say f__ you. It took me months to actually understand what he was mumbling. This day he uses my real name and asks if I would do him a favor. My golden opportunity to bring him into my circle. I say, of course, Bear! He hands me a roster for plant bus #2 and says I am now in charge of making sure everyone is on it and to maintain order! Before I could decline or even asked him a question, the Bear disappeared! This was hard for such a big man to do. I took my roster, got on the plant bus #2 then tried to read the roster and take attendance.

A beer can, full, just misses my head. I made myself invisible for the next few hours. I still am abnormally uncomfortable while on buses. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured or went missing that day from plant bus #2.

The next year I drove, by car, with my old boss, George, to the Outing. Once at the state lodge, you could play golf, go fishing, ride horses, and of course, drink beer. No official Donn business took place.  All the lodge activities, facilities and meals were free to the Donn employees. At night you could play cards, go on nature walks, drink beer or terrorize the other unfortunate guests or those in the nearby community. Although officially no one except a select few senior people, like the owner, Don Brown, or George, were allowed to drive there, somehow a number of our employees managed to make their way to the local towns and bars to, of course, drink beer. But to insure there were no serious problems, the Bear and the other plant managers would visit the local police and sheriff units and drop off a donation (read  alcohol) a few days before the Outing. This somehow bought them a get out of jail free card and the ability to a arrange a private midnight pickup at the local holding cells. Each year at least of couple Donn guys were so reclaimed. It would have been bad form not to have one of the employees return home.

The next morning after breakfast the buses departed for the Westlake plant. The two hour bus ride back was much more somber and quiet. The beer had all been consumed and any stray cans removed by the plant managers so the employees could return to their families with at least a modest level of sobriety.

On the ride back each Donn employee was given a very nice gift (a small handbag, a folding umbrella) to take home to their spouse or girlfriend. This was how Don Brown included the family and thanked them for letting their guy go away overnight. Mr. Brown usually thought of everything.

The Women’s Dinner was actually that. All the women at the Ohio office and plant were taken to a very nice local restaurant. The Dinner was to include only one alcoholic drink to insure respectability. If only we had that rule on the Men’s Outing buses! But to help make the evening more enjoyable a senior manager, George in the early days and later me, would go over early and buy a round of drinks on the Company and then leave. The Dinner was not on par cost-wise with the Men’s Outing but it was a lot more civilized. We never had to go to the local police stations at the end of the Women’s Dinner. The ladies really enjoyed the event and I miss those Dinners more than the rowdy Outings.

In my next twenty years with two large public firms, there were no events quite like Donn’s Men’s Outing or the Women’s dinner. And maybe that was for the better!