"Return on investment -- that will be our chopping block," declared Eugene J. Sullivan, chairman of Borden, Inc., and he proceeded to slice away, as it wee, at the cheese, once his company's basic product.
"Processed" cheese and "substitute" cheese and "low-fat" cheese are still profit-makers, it seems. But cheese -- just plain ordinary cheese -- is too "volatile," too "cyclical" (to use the business jargon) to maximize one's "return on investment." One depends on the weather. One depends on the cow, for goodness sake!
Who know what a green tomato will do next either? Not to mention the unpredictable people who harvest it. And so Borden has sold its tomato juice operation too.
Where is Borden going to put its cheese-and-tomato capital then? Into polyvinyl chloride resins -- that is to say, plastic. Already the resins division of Borden accounts for 40 percent of total profits.
We never saw Elsie the Borden cow, and we never really hoped to see her. But at this point, we'd certainly rather see than be her as she slowly turns into polyvinyl chloride resins. Still, Borden and Elsie are merely following a path out of the pasture that other corporations have taken before. Just last month the conglomerate Esmark decided to close down the fresh-meat operations of Swift. Real meat, like real cheese, is too "cyclical," too "volatile." Why the stuff is perishable too!
Just as we fall asleep at night we have a dream about what cost accountants dream about just as they fall asleep at night. With an ardor that makes their pocket calculators flash red, they dream of the Perfect Product. In our fantasy of their fantasy there is a long white assembly line -- absolutely antiseptic! -- giving off a low well-bred hum. Lots of robots. Plenty of polyvinyl chloride. But no people. Nothing human, animal, or even vegetable. Nothing that requires refrigeration or makes a mistake. Somewhere, out of sight, one human jab of a finger starts the operation at 8 o'clock every morning. Then the product rolls off by itself.
What product? Oh yes, the Perfect Product. Sometimes it's a plastic pet rock. But if the return on investment drops, the cost accountants in our dream simply sell out and turn to canning Maine air. For the only real product is the profit.
By the logic of the cost accountants of our fantasy, Ford should get out of automobiles the way Borden is getting out of cheese, and switch to a hotel chain or coal or maybe polyvinyl chloride.
When we wake up, the thing that really worries us is that our fantasized cost accountants and their bottomlining will do away with everything but . . . well, the plastics of life. Poetry is a far worse loser in the marketplace than cheese, and first novels than fresh meat. Will the cost accountants of publishing then recommend the printing of nothing but sex manuals and diet books?
In the music industry would all classical recordings go on that chopping block because only rock and maybe a little country-western could justify themselves by return on investment?
When our dream has really shaken us, we imagine a world in which the production of all "quality" items is left to the Germans and the Japanese, who seem to know how to make a profit out of them. The little sermons to the corporate board pop into our head, preaching a revival of "pride in product" -- almost as bad as the sermons corporate executives are now delivering to employees, preaching a revival of the "work ethic."
Maybe our problem is that we like cheese too much. We certainly have nothing against Borden, which has been practically old-fashioned as diversifying corporations go. In fact, every wobbly chair in our house swears by Elmer's glue, though we've just never got used to the picture of Elsie the cow in the corner of that label. And now we're afraid it's going to get a little bit worse as we sit in one of those chairs late at night, nibbling somebody else's cheese -- just before dreaming about cost accountants.