Supply House Times

The Bullpen Environment

August 4, 2010

During my 33 years covering the PHCP industry as a trade journalist, I’ve visited hundreds of executive offices, spanning manufacturers, distributors, reps, contractors, engineering firms, government agencies, trade associations and other organizations. I’ve seen my share of expensive artwork, massive mahogany conference tables, comfy chairs conducive to napping and modern electronic gadgetry to enable teleconferencing, PowerPointing and - for all I know - maybe contact with alien civilizations.  

The plusher the office the more I see a shrine that is more about corporate puffery than serving business interests. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career it’s that bricks, mortars and décor have little correlation with business success. Some of the best supply houses in this industry are located in ramshackle warehouses in neighborhoods nobody of sound mind and non-criminal intent would visit after dark. And when it comes to executive offices, out of the hundreds of layouts I’ve visited, some no doubt costing upwards of six figures to furnish and decorate, only two stand out as memorable.  

These are in the headquarters of Davis & Warshow in Maspeth, NY, and that of Global Stainless Supply/Forgings, Flanges & Fittings (GSS/FFF) in Houston. The most impressive thing about the executive offices of these firms is that there are none. Or more precisely, there is exactly one.  

Both companies operate with a “bullpen” concept, in which the CEO and other managers operate from nondescript desks or cubicles surrounded by the rest of their workforce. People of high, low and intermediate rank are thrust together day after day, overhearing one another’s conversations and consulting one another without doors or any other communication barriers interfering. (GSS/FFF’s president, Bill Bootz, does have a modest personal office where he receives visitors requiring a modicum of privacy, but otherwise spends little time there. I interviewed him in that private office, whose door was left open throughout and various associates ventured in at will. The office also contains some children’s toys and video games, because it serves double duty as a child care facility, in case an employee’s kid has to stay home with the sniffles or child care arrangements break down.)  

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these are also two highly successful businesses. An egalitarian corporate culture won’t solve every business problem, but it sure does seem to work for these companies.  

During the early years of my career I worked in a bullpen environment, in which our four-person editorial staff was based in a small open-air room with not even cubicle walls separating our desks. We overheard all interaction among staffers as well as one another’s phone conversations. (If we needed to make a sensitive personal phone call in that pre-cellular era, we’d retreat to a vacant office or to an outside pay phone.)  

At times I yearned for a little privacy and less ambient noise, especially when conducting phone interviews, but looking back at this experience it dawned on me that working in that bullpen shortened my industry learning curve considerably. Information got absorbed almost subconsciously minute by minute. Day after day I learned more names of industry companies and individuals, as well as insider gossip and rumors discussed by more experienced colleagues. Plus, I was forced into learning how to filter out distractions when writing articles or doing other tasks requiring concentration.  

I’m decades removed from that environment, and don’t think I’d react well if the powers-that-be decided to take away my private office (door open 99.9% of the time) at this stage of my career. Yet I’m self-aware enough to admit that this probably speaks more of my dotage than of any professional value in being surrounded every day at work by walls rather than colleagues who could benefit from my insights, and I theirs.  

I do know that if I were starting a company from scratch, I would be seated at the center of a bullpen.

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