Amid mega-mergers, heed the 'Ferry Godmother's' touch

Billion-dollar business mergers are a regular occurrence these days. To name a few: MCI bought Sprint for $108 billion late last year. As the calendar flipped this year, the upstart Internet company AOL bought the longstanding giant Time Warner in the "biggest business deal in history." Recently, the Tribune Company of Chicago bought the Los Angeles Times, a family-owned business since 1884.

As a consumer, I have concerns about the creation of these monoliths - despite the fact that the US Congress seems to accept that none of them violate antitrust laws. When I learned my phone company, MCI, had bought Sprint, my response was not, "Wow, now I'll be served by an even bigger phone company!" What I actually said was, "Great, now I'll never get through to a live voice!" It's my experience that nearly every time my phone company, bank, or even the local bookstore is absorbed into a larger chain, it's harder to get personalized assistance from an experienced person. Frankly, I'm tired of sitting on hold or not being recognized at businesses I frequent.

Must growth be synonymous with reduced or impersonal service? I don't think so. And a sweet story from a small, rocky island in British Columbia illustrates how an expanding business can still personally respond to consumer needs.

Most people on this island make their living as merchants, fishermen, loggers, resort owners, or telecommuters. Every few hours, a ferry connects the small island to a larger island. Unlike many ferry terminals in the US and Canada, there were no fast-food or curio outlets at the terminal - until recently. When you arrived, you simply parked your car single-file along the shoulder of a two-lane road.

In 1993, a local woman thought people might enjoy fresh coffee and muffins as they waited in the ferry line. She placed her freshly cleaned garden wheelbarrow in the back of her pick-up truck, packed thermoses of hot water and coffee, a box of assorted tea bags, a small container of cream and sugar, Styrofoam cups, and a basket of fresh-baked muffins. She drove to the ferry landing, lined her wheelbarrow with a red and white checkered tablecloth, and loaded all her food into it.

As she pushed her wheelbarrow up the hill past waiting cars, neighbors and friends rolled down their windows, greeting her warmly. She was sold out halfway up the row. Occasionally, the woman would take a day off, but people waiting for the 7 a.m. boat came to count on "Ferry Godmother." Several years later, the woman sold her wheelbarrow and two large thermoses to another woman who reasoned there might also be a call for treats in the 9 a.m. ferry line. She too was instantly successful. She pushed that wheelbarrow for two years - rain or shine - from May through October, taking the quieter winter months off.

In early 1999, she set up a 6-by-15-foot stand in the small parking lot near the ferry gate and expanded her business. During my annual visit last summer, I enjoyed homemade muffins and coffee, hamburgers and tofu burgers, chips and juices. The sign on the front of the cedar-shake building reads, "The Ferry Godmother." Memorialized in front of the trailer is the freshly painted old, red wheelbarrow, now planted with marigolds and calendula.

I'm rooting for the Ferry Godmother - that her investment pays for itself so she can offer her children the things a mother hopes for. And I'm rooting for us, her customers, hoping that we continue to get homemade muffins kept warm in a basket with gingham cloth.

In my mind, this entrepreneur has created an expansion that I, the customer, can see direct benefit from. Her job brings her pleasure, and she is serving an important role in her community. It would be an encouraging change in our culture if the bellwether businesses, the ones that make headlines, were the ones that emphasized service to their communities, personal and thoughtful interaction with their customers and employees, and quality of product.

I hope the fairy godmother of the common customer will step forward and halt this race to bigger and bigger mergers, which appear to be more for the benefit of already-wealthy CEOs than their customers. It seems these mega-mergers are simply creating unwieldy giants that are less responsive to the common person than their previous incarnations. And now we have corporate entities so large that not even governments can influence or monitor them. For my part, I shall continue to frequent small businesses as often as possible.

* Ann Linnea is cofounder of PeerSpirit Inc., an educational consulting firm that helps foster communication and accountability in self-governing groups as diverse as family gatherings and corporate teams. She is the author of 'Deep Water Passage, a Spiritual Journey at Midlife' (Pocketbook 1997).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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