Fact-Checking 'Corner Office'

By James Fallows

It's not often you have the chance to fact-check, personally, the anecdotes in a New York Times business profile. But as I read, on an endless plane flight, today's "Corner Office" interview by Adam Bryant with Jack Dangermond (below) founder and president of the ESRI software company, I was able to say: Yes, I remember that, it sounds right to me.

jack-dangermond.jpg

From the general public's perspective, ESRI is one of the great stealth tech successes. What the world at large now takes for granted thanks to Google Earth -- that we can see any point anywhere in the world and how it relates to its environs -- ESRI has over the years made available in a professional way for governments, NGOs, and corporations. Siting police stations or fire houses based on the geographic pattern of crimes or fires, locating new retail outlets, setting the most efficient courier or delivery routes, seeing where hurricane or oil-spill damage might be worst, tracking the effects of drought -- that is the kind of analysis for which their software has become the international standard. The growth of the company, which is still privately held, has transformed its home base of Redlands, California from an orange-growing / Air Force / university town to a software center with several thousand tech employees. It has also made Dangermond one of the world's secret plutocrats.

In today's interview, Dangermond, whose family I've known all my life, talks about the practical hard-work lessons he learned working in his family's nursery and garden-supply operation:

>>When my parents started it, they had little education and were immigrants from Holland... My parents had no money, but they had strong values that I've carried throughout my life -- things like not going into debt, never borrowing money, never leveraging, paying your bills on time, keeping your agreements, selling customers the right things, treating employees right and growing things....

I also remember my father and I were once walking through the nursery, and one of the plants was wilting.  And he said, "Did you notice something?"

I looked down and realized the plant was wilting.  He said: "Don't ever walk by a wilting plant. Get water on it right away."  Which sort of stuck with me -- you inherently have responsibilities to take care of things. In a nursery, if you don't take care of those plants, your profits get lost real quickly.  You have to weed.  You have to water.  You have to nurture.  Also, you have to take care of your employees in such a way that they do the same.<<

OK, that rings true, but it's not the part I can fact-check. This is:

Q. What other lessons from the nursery?

A. One of the guiding principles was to take care of your customers.  Don't sell them something they don't need. So we would simply listen to our customers, and work with them, show them some alternatives, sketch some things out and create a successful design for their yard.  And that kind of customer relationship was something that was genuine and also endeared our family to people. People loved going to that nursery, and having somebody actually care for them rather than just shove some product in their face.

On more Sunday afternoons than I care to remember, my dad would drive my brother and me to Dangermond's Nursery on what was then Highway 99 (now Redlands Boulevard) to get grass seed, or fertilizer, or rose bushes, or young cypress trees, or flats full of tomato plants, or anything else that would keep us productively busy through the rest of the day. Somehow I don't remember my sisters being dragooned for this duty, but maybe they remember differently. And the experience of going there was exactly as Jack Dangermond described to NYT readers today.

Dangermond and ESRI don't need the New York Times's recognition to validate their success. They are renowned in the software world. But it is nice to have this broader notice. And, once again, I can second-source verify the anecdotes.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/07/fact-checking-corner-office/241725/