One of my favorite movies is “The Station Agent,” not only because it is good film making, but also because it provides unique material to draw lessons in business. The film was shot mostly in New Jersey during a 20 day span, costing $500,000. It grossed $5.5 million. I’d like that return on my investment, wouldn’t you?
Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a man, suffering from dwarfism, looking only to be left alone in the small town, train depot bequeathed to him by his late good friend. He soon meets up with Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a forty-year-old artist struggling with the breakup of her marriage and the death of her son, and a thirty-year-old Cuban with a talent for cooking, Joe (Bobby Cannavale) who is painfully gregarious.
The STATION AGENT is about three people with nothing in common, except their shared solitude. Through this wonderful character study written and directed by Tom McCarthy (no relation, although my father’s name is actually Tom) this odd threesome, although each craving solitude in some form or another, eventually discover what they really need is each other. The movie’s tag line is “Sometimes even isolation is better shared.”
Sometimes in life, as in business, the best outcomes are achieved by doing what seems counter-intuitive. In a larger context, we tend to run away from things in our lives that we should be running toward. Now, I am not advocating running into the path of an oncoming train, but there are events, happening, and situations we can run toward, or face head on.
This movie reminds me a great deal of how businesses sometimes choose to face adversity. Whether the economy is dragging the business down, or the competition is stealing market share, or our customers and revenues are diminishing, most times business leaders start trying to reduce costs in an effort to maintain profitability or keep the company running. There seems to be a general acceptance to circle the wagons or hunker down in an effort to get the train back on the tracks. Wall Street thinks they understand this. Watch what happens to a company’s stock price when they announce layoffs as part of a cost saving initiative.
In The Station Agent, when the characters have embarrassed themselves, or are feeling overwhelmed by loss, they retreat to the solitude of their homes, order groceries to be delivered, and refuse to answer the door or the phone. In the end they discover the better strategy is to get even more involved socially, take the risk to share the pain and embarrassment, because it’s the hard work we put into our friendships that can truly make us feel better.
So it is true in business. Case studies1 are filled with examples of how companies continued to take strategic risks, invest in marketing and sales initiatives, design new products or services, and redeploy resources when faced with adversity. Rather than hiding from the market, they run to embrace any new opportunity. Rather than trimming marketing and sales departments, they find ways to invest in their people, increasing their skills, streamlining processes, or designing a more lucrative compensation plan.
The smartest of companies strategize. What are the consumer trends, where is the market headed, how can we get ahead, do we have the right people, processes and tools, what should we do with the money we have? These companies then align their resources around those new initiatives, rather than simply reduce headcount. This is hard work and it’s risky work, but the odds of building a stronger company are far greater than simply trying to reduce costs.
Take your lesson from Fin, Olivia, and Joe. The easy path in hard times leads to isolation and loneliness. The hard work of strategy, investment, and redeploying assets in difficult times, like building friendships, leads to an easy future.
1 Dr. Toshi Shibano, “Back to Basics: How world class companies will survive and thrive in hard times,” Strategic Financial Literacy, (2010) 1-4