Life aftr Maytag: Former workers following new paths

Life after Maytag: Former workers following new paths, business opportunities, personal passions
 
Date November 23, 2005
Section(s) Local News
Brief  
 
By PETER HUSSMANN

Editor

There’s no question Maytag has been the premier employer in the area for generations. Landing a job there meant employment security, great pay, benefits and a sound retirement, plus a chance to work on a national playing level.

When Maytag asked someone to come aboard, few turned it down.

“It’s hard to say no to what’s definitely the premier job for the area,” said Mark Larson, who for 15 years worked in plant engineering at Maytag after being plucked from his draftsman position at a Grinnell firm.

Maytag‘s premier employment status is pretty simple to understand. You don’t often find a Fortune 500 corporation doing more than $4 billion in sales in a rural county-seat town of 16,000 people. Besides Maytag, Prudential is the only other Fortune 500 company in the whole state.

“There are not many jobs like this in Iowa,” said Kristi Lafrenz, who worked in marketing at Maytag for 15 years. “I felt lucky.”

Over the last few years, however, that status began to ebb. As the appliance maker’s fortunes slipped, it reacted by jettisoning employees in wave after wave of downsizing initiatives. In 2004 Maytag announced a restructuring endeavor that would eliminate 20 percent of its salaried workforce with hundreds and hundreds of jobs lost at its Newton headquarters. Production jobs in Newton also have been hit with round after round of layoffs bringing employment levels to just over a third of what they were a few years back. Maytag won’t say, but anecdotal evidence suggests as many as 2,000 jobs have been lost since 2001 at Maytag operations in Newton.

And now Maytag employees await shareholder and regulatory approval for rival Whirlpool’s $2.7 billion takeover offer. If completed as planned early next year, some suggest that all Maytag operations in Newton will close, bringing to an end Newton’s reign as the “Washing Machine Capital of the World.”

So, what’s life like after Maytag? What have those who’ve already left done and what can those who may find themselves in the same boat expect and learn from those who’ve gone ahead? Here are their stories.

New Paths

Larson, the former Grinnell draftsman, was scared to death as a member of the Class of 2003, a sardonic title some former Maytagers have tagged themselves after being forced out of the company. He didn’t see it coming.

“It scared me,” he said. “I got to work not knowing. How was I going to make up that income and benefits?”

Wayne Johnson’s feelings were hurt when a Maytag official tapped him on the shoulder and showed him the door during the first wave of downsizing in October 2001. After giving more than 12 years to the company, it was hard to come to terms with the fact that the work he had been doing was not appreciated, he said.

Mark Monroe held a fair amount of anger after being let go last year after 20 years with Maytag. But at least the company waited until the day after he returned to work after chaperoning his son’s high school band trip to New York City, he says with a hint of animosity. Two other chaperones on the trip were asked to leave the same day.

Larson’s fear of unemployment didn’t last long. Four days after leaving the corporate fold he was offered a position with a big contracting firm. But something told him to go slow.

“I didn’t want to get trapped into something I didn’t like,” he said. “I had a feeling that I didn’t want someone having that much control. I didn’t want that tap on the shoulder again.”

So he took his time. The severance package Maytag provided allowed him to spend the whole summer with his daughter, even taking a month-long trip to the Black Hills.

“I took some time to think what I wanted to do,” he said.

With his building plans background, he thought he might enjoy selling the finished product. He took his real estate exam and began selling homes at a local firm. But the divorced father found that raising his daughter on a straight commission was tough work. He took a draftsman job at an area firm, but he still wasn’t comfortable. Then he received a call from Geri Doyle, who along with Caren DeVoe was opening a new Iowa Realty office in town. They needed someone to handle the detail work at the new firm and thought he might be interested.

“There’s kind of an underground network of people looking out for us,” Larson said from his office at Doyle and DeVoe Realty in Newton.

The bustling real estate office atmosphere suits him fine.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I miss the income and benefits,” he said. “But I wanted to look for something smaller, more close knit. I don’t want to be a number. I enjoy what I’m doing here. Money isn’t everything. Leaving Maytag enabled me to gain some introspection on what’s important in life.”

——

Although Johnson’s feelings were hurt when Maytag let him go, in hindsight he says it was the right thing at the right time.

“I was at a point in my life where I was reassessing my situation,” he said. “I knew I was not happy where I was at.”

Johnson also was pragmatic about his departure.

“I understood we had a business arrangement just like any other supplier,” he said. “I quit taking it personally in a relatively short time. Maytag did everything for me they said they would do. The guy who told me I was gone I still consider to be a friend.”

That pragmatism led Johnson quickly toward his new career path. He’d always had an interest in financial planning, and the separation gave him the freedom to pursue that arena. Four months after being let go he began working from his home as an independent financial advisor affiliated with Waddell & Reed Financial Services. Early next year, he’ll finish his fourth year in the business.

“I like running my own business,” he said. “Some days I’d like the security of a paycheck, but there’s a variability now that wasn’t there before. I’m happier now than I was then and I’m better off than if I was still there. My business continues to expand and I can run it the way I feel comfortable with. I can focus on clients, rather than managers, because that’s what’s really important. In your own business, security is the choices you get to make.”

——

Monroe also had been frustrated in his position at Maytag and had been considering leaving. Still, he was caught off guard when he was downsized out of the corporation early last summer.

And, like Johnson, he realized it wasn’t anything he did or didn’t do that earmarked him for elimination.

“It wasn’t about me,” he said. “They eliminated positions.”

But Maytag was all he really ever knew, starting there fresh out of Oklahoma State in the mid 1980s. Now he was faced with something new, how to go about looking for a job.

With his experience in computer programming, he knew he could quickly catch on with a Des Moines insurance company.

“But then I remembered why I didn’t want just to be a programmer,” Larson said. “Writing accounting programs is boring.”

So he looked around, wanting to stay in Newton while his children finished school and remaining among long-time friends, many of whom also were facing career path interruptions.

With financial assistance through provisions in the North America Free Trade Agreement, Monroe began working toward his doctorate degree at Iowa State University in Ames with a focus on human/computer interaction. At the same time he found an adjunct professor position at William Penn College in Oskaloosa. This fall he began a full-time position at Marshalltown Community College as an assistant professor of mathematics and computer science. He teaches two statistics courses, two general math courses and his favorite, a Web design and programming course.

Monroe remains bittersweet a year after his departure from Maytag.

“I was very stressed and angry,” he said. “I wasn’t happy. I’m a lot happier now, and I think my wife would agree.”

Business Opportunities

Not everyone leaving Maytag has been tapped on the shoulder. Some have chosen to leave the Fortune 500 company to start their own endeavors armed with the skill sets the corporation has fostered during their stays.

Such is the case for two former Maytag marketers, Kristi Lafrenz and Jill Hair, who left this summer to start their own company, “spark 2, Marketing Minds for Hire.”

Both Newton women have extensive marketing backgrounds. Lafrenz spent 15 years at Maytag in a variety of sales and brand management functions. Hair spent five years at Maytag before leaving to do freelance work and a stint at Blue Cross. She rejoined Maytag two years ago where the pair were reunited in Maytag‘s recently created strategic initiative group. It was there that the entrepreneurial spirit bit.

Maytag marketing’s strategic initiative unit was charged with creating, constructing and marketing new lines of products outside the typical sphere of home appliances, like the Maytag Skybox personal beverage dispenser, an immediate hit with Sunday afternoon TV football jocks and hosts of Wednesday night poker games.

“It was like being an entrepreneur within a large corporation,” Lafrenz said. “It planted the seed.”

Lafrenz and Hair also say they are following a growing trend among women who are leaving the corporate world to start their own businesses. As the mothers of young children, the two felt they would be able to have the flexibility of being around when their children needed them at the same time continuing their professional aspirations.

“It lets us ensure that we have the flexibility to be there for the kids,” Hair said.

“It lets us be the master of our own world,” Lafrenz compliments her partner’s statement.

Their goal is to create a virtual network of marketing expertise. The professional contacts they’ve made working in the corporate world will enable them to find and fit the particular experts to any client’s need.

“We’re forming a consortium of freelancers, many of them women who have left the corporate world,” Lafrenz said. “We’ll use different groups for different projects, a virtual agency, to help our clients’ strategic needs.”

“We’ll find the best fit for the customer,” Hair adds to her partners assessment.

——

Don Fisher is the epitome of what on-the-job Maytag training can lead to.

Seventeen years ago, the Newton native followed his grandfather’s footsteps and walked into the sheet metal shop at Maytag Plant 2. But it was his move to the corporation’s research and development model shop a couple of years later that eventually paved the way to the business success he enjoys today.

In research and development, Fisher was trained to take an engineer’s theoretical machine concept and turn it into a finished product prototype. Using state-of-the art injection mold and computer numerical control equipment, he helped Maytag engineers master the designs for the corporation’s continuous stream of new products. For the next 10 years, Fisher worked on the designs for Maytag‘s new platforms, including its state-of-the-art horizontal axis washing machine, Neptune.

“I was just an old woodworker when I started, but they trained me,” Fisher said.

But by the late 1990s Fisher was growing anxious. Then CEO Lloyd Ward was talking strongly about putting Maytag‘s research and development in a Chinese locale.

“I decided I better start looking for something else to do,” Fisher said.

Fisher put together the funds necessary to buy some used injection mold and CNC equipment. He opened his own prototype parts company, Product Development Partners, but continued to work for Maytag, moonlighting at his new company on the side.

For the next several months, Fisher weighed the pros and cons of striking out on his own. First on his list of concerns was the pay and benefits Maytag offered.

“I was a nervous wreck,” he said. “I thought I would retire there.”

In February 2000, Fisher jumped and made the leap to life after Maytag. Five years later he says he made the right choice.

“I couldn’t continue to do both jobs,” he said. “I had to make the decision of whether to stay or go. I decided to control my destiny.”

Today Fisher makes prototype products for a variety of national manufacturers. He continues to expand his client base and has expanded his operation, now employing three full-time workers and one part-time employee.

Ironically, Fisher has been able to offer employment sanctuary to two former co-workers who were walked out of the Maytag R &D model shop last year. Mike Urias spent 28 years at Maytag before being let go last June while Kevin Shipley had marked more than 11 years when his position was eliminated. Both men come from families with generational ties to Maytag. And both are appreciative of the opportunity to continue with the work they’ve enjoyed.

“Don has offered us the opportunity to do the same type of work here,” Shipley said. “Karma sometimes does great things.”

——

King joined Maytag in November 1979 and for the next 11 years provided environmental analysis on the by-products emanating from production operations at Maytag Plant 2. In the late 1980s, however, he saw an opportunity to establish a business that would meet the growing environmental analysis needs of individuals, businesses and government operations around the state and beyond.

“A lot of my friends were checking my sanity, but it was one of those things that come along once during a career,” he said. “Either you make a go of it or you’re left wondering.”

King gathered the requisite financing to get the operation off the ground. He opened his doors in January 1990 moonlighting as the sole employee at his new Keystone Laboratories — named after his favorite skiing locale in Colorado — while continuing his work at Maytag. Six months later, he left Maytag to focus full time on his fledgling business.

Fifteen years later, although not all a bed of roses, his business idea has proved successful. He currently owns three environmental laboratories in Newton, Waterloo and Kansas City, employing a total of 42 people, 32 of whom are based in Newton. He’s conducted environmental testing projects all over North America to the Virgin Islands, from Anchorage, Alaska to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“I’ve been real fortunate and I’m very thankful,” he said. “I was a chemist who had to learn how to run a business.”

Personal passions

Most of the people who have been let go from Maytag have received the perfunctory “tap on the shoulder.” Doug Gibson did the tapping.

With 23 years in at Maytag, Gibson had seen the work environment change. Instead of the days when the going to work created a sense of excitement and movement, round after round after round of layoffs had taken its toll. He often dreaded the start of a new work week, finally realizing why he’d become so grouchy on Sunday nights.

Maytag used to be a great place to work,”Gibson said. “Now you’re just waiting for your turn.”

By late 2004, Gibson realized he would not likely be retiring from Maytag. That meant he would need to find something else to do. His youngest child had just left for college so the time felt right to try something new.

As an electrical engineer, one might think Gibson would opt to move into something he knew well. But he’d had enough of the conveyor controls and power lines that were his life at Maytag.

“I went to my boss and said if there was going to be another ‘double E’ position eliminated, make it me,” Gibson said.

Boom. A few weeks later he was gone.

When not working at Maytag, Gibson loved to backpack. He’d taken hiking trips to Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas and haunted the Yellow River Forest area of northeast Iowa for years. So, he thought, why not turn his avocation into his vocation.

With the assistance of NAFTA money, Gibson is now taking classwork at Iowa State on a bachelor’s degree in animal ecology with an ecology option. He’s involved in a graduate level Global Information Systems project where he’s helping plot prairie remnants across the state. A year from now, he should be close to completing his degree with hopes of securing a position in county conservation or with the Department of Natural Resources. But before he begins any new assignment, he’s going to do something he’s never had the time to do before, walk the Appalachian Trail.

“I feel like I’m moving forward toward something,” Gibson said. “I’m glad I went to my boss. I haven’t regretted it yet. But be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”

And, he notes with a smile, the Sunday evening tone in the Gibson household has improved dramatically.

——

If anyone exemplifies the success and satisfaction of following one’s passion, it’s Amy Doerring.

For 17 years, the last 10 at Maytag in Newton, Doerring was immersed in the corporate world of information technology. But now, more than three years after being let go by Maytag, she’s traded her megabytes for megapixels as her photography studio continues to grow.

“I had an interest in photography for a long time and now I had the opportunity to do what I wanted,” she said. “But I didn’t know if I had the courage to do it.”

With strong support from friends and family — she was sent congratulatory plant arrangements upon her departure from Maytag in March 2002 — she pulled up her boot straps and went to work. That summer, she set up a sales booth as part of Newton’s annual Ridiculous Day sale and lined up several senior picture portrait sessions. The rest is history.

Today she operates Amy Doerring Photography out of a recently renovated third floor studio at her home. Her client list has grown to include regular customers from all over Iowa, as well as Minnesota and Nebraska.

And Doerring’s is not the typical studio photography work. As often as not, you’ll find her at shooting sessions at some of her favorite light-meets-textured-walls spots around town, such as near the old railroad depot and the former Jasper County Jail building.

“My tag line is ‘still photography, moving images.'” she said. “That’s what I want to create.”

She credits bringing the creative process to her photography work from her continued study of art history. Seeing how the great artists have used light and shadows to create mood and effect is something she continuously tries to improve upon in her photography work.

“I want to get better and better,” she said.

Another important aspect of her efforts go to what she calls her “heart’s work.” She recently completed a photo montage of a young boy stricken with a brain tumor and has helped out Annie Wignall’s Care Bags program.

“It allows me to give something back,” she said.

Looking back, Doerring can better see what her departure from Maytag has meant.

“It gave me wings so I could fly,” she said.

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