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Monday, August 26, 2019

Competition that Kills

(graphic from online article

A week ago Saturday, we accompanied one of our granddaughters to an indoor “ice skating” facility. I put that term in quotation marks because even though the term ice skating is used, it isn’t ice. Instead, the surface is made of thick plastic sheets that look and seemingly function like ice.

The rink was located in what has been a very popular mall in the western suburbs of Chicago. Only heaven knows what was in that space before. And only heaven knows how long it will last. My granddaughter and her friend were the only two skaters in the rink for most of two hours.

The anchor stores are fading quicker. At this same mall, Sears shut its doors in the last year. So did Carson Pirie Scott. Penney’s and Macy’s are hanging on, but who knows for how long?

After the skating, we then glided over to the Disney Store. There, we discovered a 40% off sale on everything. Great, right? Well, it was really a “going out of business sale.” Make no mistake here. Disney and its plethora of merchandising items are not going away. Just the retail stores in failing malls.

I recall saying to my wife Rhonda, “If Disney can’t make it in this mall, what company can?” She then explained that another franchise, Charming Charlie’s, was also ready to bite the retail dust. I thought teens and young women loved that store!

As it turns out, they only love the merchandise. And they’re finding it elsewhere. Mostly, they find it online.

Then we have the case of Chalkboard, the educational supply store. This is like a teacher’s paradise! A virtual Toys R Us for the educational community. Oh, wait. Toys R Us is a goner, too. And, apparently, Chalkboard management is worried it will happen to them.

Three stores in the suburbs of Chicago recently banded together to send their “supporters” a letter. After acknowledging that online shopping is “convenient, and often offers lower prices” and might even give you free shipping, the letter portrays this reality headline:


The plea is made for you to shop local. The letter states that “small and large businesses all over the country are closing by the thousands and some of your families, friends, and neighbors are losing their jobs…maybe even you?!” They add that the commercial real estate tax base in communities seems to be “drying up.” And shopping centers are being shuttered.

I’ll be the first to say that making the pitch to “shop local” usually doesn’t work. Americans are driven by making the best deal for themselves. Why, we’ll even drive five miles to save 10 cents more on a gallon of gas!

There’s no doubt about it. Amazon is a behemoth. Even FedEx is worried. Amazon seems quite serious about creating their own delivery service. At times, Alexa’s parent company seems like an unstoppable force. (I wonder how Alexa responds to the question, “How long before you take over the world??”)

Monopolies or companies that “can’t fail” usually run into a variety of troubles. The federal government being one of those. Customer resentment being another. Even countries can see their governments collapse.

I won’t try to guilt you into shopping differently. Guilt trips don’t work. But I might suggest you consider building a co-op with other families in the future. The power of large co-ops in purchasing can benefit many.

Jesus of Nazareth warned His disciples about the difficulties to be faced in this world. And He encouraged them thusly, “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16, NLT)

Learn to think shrewdly. Wisely. And watch out for competition that kills.

That’s Forward Thinking. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Watch for a new YouTube program and podcast with Mark Elfstrand beginning in late summer.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Who are You?

My wife Rhonda and I recently put another 2200 miles on the family car. This was for the round trip journey to Sidney, Montana, for my 50th high school reunion. Along the way—coming and going—we spent a lot of time listening to a Sirius XM’s recently added channel called, “Road Trip Radio.” I guess they're going to add this to their regular lineup.

The music mix is certainly eclectic. Everything from Johnny Cash singing “I’ve Been Everywhere” to songs by Elvis to the Doobie Brothers to a few more modern cuts. A lot of the music came from the 60s and 70s.

One of the songs we heard along the way was the rock tune, “Who are You?” by, somewhat ironically, The Who. It was the title track on their 1978 album and was the theme song for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. (Unfortunately, the unedited version contains two obscenities.)

There’s a story line behind the song that you can find easily enough online. But the overriding lyric throughout is, “Who are you? I really wanna know Who are you?”—repeated ad infinitum. It’s quite catchy. And I had that in mind as I probed the stories that came out of my return to Sidney, Montana.

The reunion itself was a good experience for me. Several people who were unable to be at our 40th gathering showed up this time. Of those, I reconnected with a few from my speech club days. And I was able to return a copy of a girl’s annual from our junior year, which I had meant to sign but never returned. We had some laughs in the ceremonial presentation of giving it back.

Many choose not to attend reunions. In later years, I suppose this plays out because of health-related challenges, travel costs, or other difficulties. Twenty- and thirty-year reunions might conflict with business or family commitments as they are usually held in summer.

The more curious absences are those who live in the same community but don’t show up. I’d be interested to know why. Conversing about this with a friend, we concluded reasons could be many, but a few stood out. One, plainly there’s no interest. Secondly, these are usually highly social events. We had no dance or other distraction, so any activity meant you were talking to people, getting updates, and sharing stories. I can see where a good number of people would be uncomfortable if they have social difficulties. Another reason might be that the high school years were an unmemorable or unpleasant time.

A fourth reason stood out to me a bit more. Reunions are also about hearing what happened to people along life’s journey. Who they became. What challenges they overcame. The disappointments they had to face. Dreams unfulfilled. Marriages that didn’t last. Maybe some behavior that was embarrassing and wanted to be left in the past.

I’m sure a lot of those stories were left untold at the reunion. The truths that lie behind them, however, have left their mark. And so the masks we wore for the reunion were generally the best faces we could put on.

This is what separates real and artificial friendships. Real friends get real. Blemishes don’t matter. The person you are with has value beyond any mistakes or hurts. You love them in a deep and special way. And some of those kinds of friendships can date back to high school.

A reunion can rekindle a bit of that relational bond in memory form. Thus, there are treasures waiting. I certainly felt that way.

Proverbs 18:24 states, “There are ‘friends’ who destroy each other, but a real friend sticks closer than a brother.” (NLT)

I don’t know what kind of friend you are. But that’s the kind we ought to be. It’s the kind that plucks out the bad and tosses it away.

So exactly, who are you?

That’s Forward Thinking. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Watch for a new YouTube program and podcast with Mark Elfstrand beginning in late summer.

For more information:

Monday, August 12, 2019

Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell.

Anyone who plays the game of Blackjack at a casino knows that the dealer has the advantage. That’s why, in the end, the house always wins. It’s also how casinos stay in business.

Obviously, if the house wins, the customer (or gambler) loses. It’s just a matter of time. And yet, there are always players at the table.

In the workplace, there are other forms of a “gamble” that take place. We usually call it, “negotiations.” And most often, the house – also known as the employer – wins. Big time sports and other high profile type jobs will use agents or intermediaries of some type. Nice, if your situation allows it.

The reason why a third party is best is because when you negotiate for yourself, you become emotionally involved. Bad idea. The employer rarely has more on the line than you do. So the negotiation falls in his or her favor.

Nowhere does this play out more directly than when you are applying for a new position. Often, a question has appeared on an application or it surfaces in an interview that is, at minimum, irritating. It’s when you are asked about your recent pay or salary history.

Really? Why do you, Mr/Ms Employer, need to know THAT? Do you mind telling me details of the pay history for the position for which I’m applying? What did you pay the LAST employee for this work? Don’t go there. Like I said, the house has the advantage.

Unless an employee is rather shrewd, most don’t know the pay dynamics or benefits involved in a job. And if management can find a way to turn a deal in their favor, they will. That’s the nature of business.

Even asking an employee a question like, “What type of compensation (or package) were you expecting for this job?” makes most applicants uneasy. What if you ask for something “outrageous?” Regardless, the employer can look down over the glasses and say something like, “Oh…I see.” And you think…what did THAT mean? Perhaps you might even grovel a little.

In Illinois, the government decided to do something about this seemingly inequitable situation. A law recently signed by Governor J.B. Pritzker, which takes effect in less than 60 days, will forbid companies in Illinois from asking job applicants or their previous employers about salary history. Seems reasonable.

However, the advocates of this measure championed the bill because they believe the salary question “perpetuates a wage gap between men and women doing the same jobs.” Perhaps it does. Perhaps it doesn’t. No hard proof was offered by the Chicago Tribune in their story on this bill.

Governor Pritzker said this at the time of the bill’s signing, “We are declaring that one’s history should not dictate one’s future, that no person should be held back from earning their true value because of how much money they were paid in a previous job.” Perhaps he even added a “Hrrumpphh” at the end.

This is not something an employer should take lightly. The bill specifies that workers can seek up to $10,000 in damages if their employer violates this law. It further protests “the right of employees to discuss their salaries and benefits with co-workers.”

I’m not so sure about the wisdom of that last part. Both of my previous employers strongly forbade discussing your pay or benefits with others within the organization or outside. For ministries or other sensitive work environments, there are highly practical reasons to avoid this.

Not everyone carries equal talent or value within an organization. Pay variables will always exist. And should. Inside chatter about those differences can only lead to envy and bitterness.

Jesus of Nazareth said a lot about money. Luke 12:15 records Jesus' words, “Then he said to them, “Watch out and be on guard against all greed because one's life is not in the abundance of his possessions.” (HCSB)

Employers should offer fair pay and especially treat women with the same respect as men. But all of us need to be on guard about the greed problem. Keep your finances to yourself.

Best advice? Don’t ask. Don’t tell.

That’s Forward Thinking. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Watch for a new YouTube program and podcast with Mark Elfstrand beginning in late summer.


Monday, August 5, 2019

Singin’ the Blues

Chicago has its business legends. The current crop includes names like Ken Griffin, founder and CEO, Citadel; Sam Zell, chairman, Equity International; and Thomas Pritzker, chairman of the Pritzker Organization. Actually three Pritzker names appear on the list of wealthiest Chicagoans.

Several years ago, I was given a book titled, If Christ Came to Chicago. It was written by the British Journalist William T. Stead who was the son of a Congregational minister. The book itself was termed an “inflammatory exposé of Chicago’s political corruption and the underground economy.”

The book sold a remarkable 70,000 copies on the day it was published in 1894. I suppose this was the case, in part, because it included a color-coded map showing the precise locations of numerous brothels and saloons. Add to that an appendix containing addresses, proprietors, and the owners of the unfavorable properties it revealed.

Stead had a notable demise. He went down with the Titanic in 1912. Perhaps his passing was celebrated by those who felt embarrassed or even harassed by readers of his book.

The fourth chapter of Stead’s book was titled, “The Chicagoan Trinity.” The triple salute to the business elite went to Marshall Field, Philip Armour, and George Pullman. It was Pullman who “made the Pullman car a household word in every land for its convenience, its comfort and its luxury.”

I mention the names of some of these current and past business “tycoons” because many attribute their savvy and investment in Chicago to helping make the city as vibrant as it is today. Field, Armour, and Pullman created opportunities for thousands upon thousands of workers.

Charles Kettinger, in his article titled, “The Importance of Blue Collar Work,” stated, “In the modern world, more than ever before it seems, societies and economies value those people who are white collar workers. Businessmen, physicians, and lawyers are exactly these types of people.” And it is true.

However, anyone who knows Chicago is also very much aware of the importance of the “blue collar” worker. The human resources crowd defines this category of worker as someone whose profession requires them to perform a good amount of manual labor. Most are paid hourly wages or get paid by the job. Some have salaries. Many times they’re part of a union.

Jeff Haanen is the executive director of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work. Christianity Today recently published a piece by Jeff titled, ‘‘Tis a Gift to Do ‘Undignified’ Work.” And, quite frankly, isn’t that often the perception of those who fit the “blue collar” description?

Jeff offers some serious concerns. In a 40 year period beginning in 1975, the GDP in our country tripled. Personal consumption has soared along with that. What else has significantly spiked? Rates of suicide, drug abuse, and social isolation. And as was pointed out at a recent conference I attended, “loneliness” is now at seemingly epidemic proportions in all age groups.

Haanen offers this criticism. “The standard of living afforded to low-skilled work has declined—and so has our collective appreciation of the work done by millions of lower-wage workers.” The solutions to which he points come from various voices who advocate possible social policy changes to increase wages and educational opportunities. Those can be debated.

What should NOT be missing from the value of the work equation is to recognize the massive contribution to our economic wellbeing that derives from blue collar work. The positive reinforcement of this can be done in various ways—starting in the home. Like…stop teasing our kids to move beyond blue collar jobs. Encourage talents to be developed, but let’s keep the value of the work done by everyone at a positive level.

Jesus of Nazareth apparently liked the blue collar crowd. He picked several to be His disciples. And to them He said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28, NLT)

The humble servant. Sounds like a role for blue and white collars to me.

That’s Forward Thinking. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Watch for a new YouTube program and podcast with Mark Elfstrand beginning in late summer.

For more information: