Looking to the Future by Celebrating the Past at Avnet
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Looking to the Future by Celebrating the Past at Avnet

Al Maag, vice president and chief communications officer at Avnet, one of the world’s largest distributors of electronic products, appreciates history, and understands its public relations value.

Paul Holmes

American corporations are often derided for their short-termism, for the inability to plan years or even decades ahead. But short-termism is a perspective that skews executives’ view of the past as much as their view of the future. History is what happened yesterday; events of a few years ago might as well have taken place on a different planet.

The technology sector in particular appears to disdain the past, looking insistently to the future as though any attempt to celebrate the company’s heritage might somehow undermine its ability to innovate and evolve.

But a company’s history and traditions, its legacy all mean something—if they are understood, celebrated, and leveraged in the right way.

Al Maag, vice president and chief communications officer at Avnet, one of the world’s largest distributors of electronic products, appreciates history. But he also understands that not everyone shares his passion, so he was not particularly surprised when his suggestion that Avnet undertake a major initiative to celebrate its 50th anniversary, some members of the company’s management team were skeptical.

“When I first brought it up at a meeting of our brand council, one of the people there—usually my biggest supporter—thought I had lost my mind,” Maag says.

To be fair, there was some logic behind the skepticism, particularly the slightly inconvenient fact that Avent was started in 1921—84 years ago. But it was incorporated in 1955, and that seemed like enough of a hook for Maag to hang a celebration on. His enthusiasm carried the day, and the anniversary PR program was allowed to proceed.

It would end up bringing the company’s employees closer together, strengthening relationships with the key suppliers on whom it relies, sending a message of reliability and stability to shareholders, and generating a record amount of corporate coverage in the media. Almost as impressive, it would also end up covering the majority of its own six-figure costs.

“It turned out better than I had ever imagined,” says Maag, “and it was one of the most fun PR things I ever did.”

Al Maag joined Avnet in 1998, after running his own marketing communications and consulting firm in Chicago and earlier serving as director of advertising and communications for Molex, which manufactures electronic, electrical and fiber optic cable; switches; and other industrial products. In his seven years with the company, during which he has been responsible for global public relations, investor relations, community relations and employee communications, he has succeeded in turning PR into a source of significant competitive advantage.

A team of about 50 marketing communications professionals around the world, supplemented by agency executives from Brodeur Worldwide in the U.S., has been working to build the company’s brand, and to beat the company’s largest competitor—Arrow Electronics—on a variety of media metrics. PR has emerged as the company’s lead marketing discipline.

“The number one way people learn about us is word search,” says Maag. “PR is number two. The website is number three and advertising is number four. It all starts with our CEO, Roy Vallee. He is our biggest source of good public relations. He has his own brand. He really understands and supports what we are doing.”

The effort has had an impact inside the company too. An annual employee engagement survey conducted by human resources consulting firm Watson Wyatt generates an impressive 80 percent response rate, and Avnet scores its highest marks on the six or seven questions related to communications, and the scores have been rising the last couple of years. Says Maag, “Our people understand what this company stands for and where it’s going.”

At the same time, the company had been growing rapidly through acquisition, and needed a rallying point to bring everyone together. 

“It was very important to talk about the history of the company,” says Maag. “We were at an inflection point. We have acquired 45 different companies in the last few years—the largest of them a $2 billion company. Half of the people who worked for those companies are still wearing T-shirts with their old company logo on them.

“We are trying to create a culture. We want to make sure people are engaged, that they enjoy working for the company. We wanted our people to know they were working for a special company. If we could get out employees excited, we knew there was a very good chance they could exude that excitement to our customers and suppliers.”

At the same time, there was a note of urgency. “One of our senior executives, who had been with us for many years, had a heart attack,” Maag recalls. “We realized we were in danger of losing part of our institutional memory. A lot of the people who remembered the company from it’s earliest days were at an age where if we didn’t talk to them soon, we might never have the chance.”

Maag believed the history of the company was what made it different and distinctive, that it could be a point of pride for employees. “My theory of PR is attack, attack, attack,” Maag says. “If you don’t have a news story, make one up.” That was what led him to the idea of a 50th anniversary celebration, even though it was not strictly speaking the company’s anniversary.

It was an opportunity to educate, and to counter some of the widely-held misperceptions about the company.

Many people—particularly external audiences—believed that Avnet was a dot-com era name. In fact, the “net” part of the name is pure serendipity. The company was founded by Charles Avnet, who started the company selling radio parts in downtown Manhattan, and Avnets remained at the helm until the mid 1960s. (Movie executive Jon Avnet, whose directing credits include The War with Kevin Costner and Red Corner with Richard Gere, and who produced hits such as Risky Business, The Mighty Ducks, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, is the founder’s grandson.)

Others—even inside the company—did not know that as recently as the 60s and 70s Avnet was not just a distributor but also a manufacturer.

“We actually used to make things,” Maag says. “A lot of our own people didn’t realize that. We were thought of as a distribution company. But we used to make Guild musical instruments. We found an old photograph of one of our vice presidents presenting a guitar to the Beatles. We made the tape recorder that was used in the TV series Mission Impossible, the one that used to explode at the beginning of every show. We owned the recording studio where Jan & Dean made records.”

This was not the first time Maag had been involved in a history project. He had created a book about the history of Molex, his previous company, to mark its 50th anniversary. But the book was dry and a little boring, and he didn’t want to make the same mistake again, so the Avnet book was a series of short stories and anecdotes and timelines, interspersed with lots of old photographs of the company’s executives, products, ads and PR campaigns.

Michelle Taylor, a member of Maag’s PR team whose day job involved managing Avnet’s executive communications, was assigned to write and edit the book. “The stories all had to be hundreds, not thousands, of words,” says Maag, who describes the finished product as a “USA Today-style” look at the company’s history.

So the first chapter of the book includes a profile of founder Charles Avnet, a timeline showing the evolution of radio during the years after the First World War—from the lifting of a government ban on amateur radio stations in 1918 to the institution of President Roosevelt’s fireside chats in 1933—and a profile of “Radio Row” in Manhattan, where the company got its start. 

Other chapters include an article about the Joan and Lester Avnet art collection, including paintings by Chagall, Mondrain, Kandinsky, Klee and others, which was donated to the Museum of Modern Art; the story of the early days of Silicon Valley; profiles of the company’s five chief executives; and a look at Avnet’s expansion into international markets.

Another section includes Avnet ads dating back 50 years; magazine cover stories from around the world; photos of employees’ extra-curricular activities; and a look at the company’s corporate citizenship activities.

There’s even a section of fun facts, based on the company’s employee surveys: 53 percent of them have only worked for Avnet; 50 percent wear Avnet logo apparel outside of work; 88 percent participate in or raise funds for charities; 23 percent met their significant other at work; and 24 percent have or plan to get a tattoo.

“It’s a perfect book for someone with a short attention span,” says Maag, who deliberately designed it so that people could dip in an out, being entertained and learning at the same time.

Maag had also been instrumental in creating a Hall of Fame to celebrate 16-inch Softball, a game that got its start in his native Chicago. Maag was inducted into the Hall of Fame in January of 2004, and is currently looking for a sponsor to help find a permanent home in the Windy City for the Hall.

But in creating the Hall of Fame, Maag had worked on an 80-minute documentary about the history of the sport, so he knew how exciting it could be to dig through the relics of the past and create an exhibition that communicated something about the history and culture of a sport—or a company. And he felt Avnet need something that would physically capture the company’s spirit.

“If you walked into our offices, you could have been in the offices of State Farm or The Holmes Group,” says Maag. “It was just a building. There was nothing that described what we do. There was no way to know what our history was.” So in addition to producing a book, he decided to put a historical exhibition in the lobby of the company’s Phoenix headquarters. Again, he persuaded management to sign off on the idea, although it was beginning to look like an expensive project.

But at an early meeting about the book, Maag floated the idea of selling advertising to some of Avnet’s largest suppliers. Everyone agreed it would be helpful if the company could cover at least some of the costs through ad sales. In the end, even Maag was surprised by the response. Full-page ads were purchased by companies such as Agilent, AMD, AT&T, Computer Associates, DHL, FedEx, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Motorla, NEC, Texas Instruments, Toshiba—and Brodeur Worldwide.

Some publishing companies, like Reed Business Information, traded ad space.

“We have had a relationship with some of suppliers for more than 50 years,” says Maag. “We were Intel’s first customer, and when AMD came along we were one of their first customers too. So when we approached them about this project, they were happy to be a part of it.”

The volume of advertising allowed Maag to expand the book from its initial 90 pages to 150 pages and to cover most of the six-figure cost of production in-house.

To get the museum up and running, meanwhile, Maag and his team started spending time on eBay, buying up products that the company used to make. Eventually, the museum would showcase more than 100 consumer and technology products including guitars, turntables, test equipment and computers. The displays span 84 years of innovation and also include a number of historic documents and photographs related to the technology industry and memorabilia from Avnet and other companies that have played important roles in the evolution of the electronics industry.

To further involve the company’s employees, Maag and his team conducted a search for those with the longest tenure. The “fab 50,” as they were dubbed, were profiled in the company’s newsletter and online. One had been with the company for 47 years, the others had a minimum of 30 years with the company. Thirteen of them came from overseas. CEO Vallee, who joined the company as a field sales rep in 1977, just missed the cut.

The 150-page book was published in July and distributed to the company’s 10,000 employees around the world, to its largest investors, to analysts and the media, and to community leaders. And in October, which is “customer service month,” the company’s largest customers will receive copies of the book directly from the sales force.

The 1,000 square-foot museum was opened at a ribbon-cutting ceremony that featured the mayor of Phoenix, Phil Gordon; members of the Avnet family, including producer/director Jon Avnet; and Avnet chairman and CEO Roy Vallee.

The anniversary was also discussed at length in board meetings—Vallee took board members on a guided tour of the museum—and became the theme at Avnet’s sales conferences.

“If you remind your customers that you have been around for more than 80 years, they begin to feel there is a pretty good chance you will be around for another 80 years,” says Maag. At a time when so many companies seem to be, in the words of management guru Jim Collins “built to flip” rather than “built to last” the company’s history sent a powerful signal to all stakeholders about the company’s commitment to the industry.

It also sent a powerful message about the future. “We have a history of innovation,” says Maag. “The history shows that as the technology industry has evolved, we have evolved with it, and it makes it clear that we will continue to evolve.”

That was the note sounded by Vallee as he unveiled the museum in July. “Our 50th anniversary celebration honors the company that the Avnet family and thousands of other passionate, talented and dedicated people have created,” he said. “Certainly, a lot has changed over the past 80 years. The relative simplicity of the vacuum tube and radio has given way to complex technologies that are smaller, more powerful and more ubiquitous than the Avnets could have imagined.

“However, much is the same—Avnet remains a culture of integrity, performance, values and entrepreneurial spirit.”

While the most important impact of the anniversary was on stakeholder relationships—providing an opportunity for salesmen to talk to customers about the company’s rich heritage and giving employees something to be proud of, the celebration also generated “a ton of press coverage,” says Maag, including a 1,000-word article in the Arizona Republic.

“We are Arizona’s largest public company—not the biggest in terms of employees, but in terms of revenues we are number one, and that gives us a good opportunity to get local coverage for something like this.”

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