The last time I was in Milwaukee the Republican push was in full swing during the 2012 election campaign season. I was sent to cover the chaos and try to put enough soundbites together to make up an article. By curious coincidence, one of the people who spoke out that week was Elizabeth McIvor, who in one of her trademark rebuffs to unfettered corporatism, called the Republican campaign ‘the blind leading the naïve over a cliff.’ She laughs when I repeat that remark.
“Someone had to say it and it may as well be me,” she adjusts a garment on a manikin and takes a step back to look at it, “politicians are a lot like store manikins. You change the outfit once every four years and hope no one notices it’s the same idiot wearing different clothes and you can quote me on that.”
I’m here to witness a McIvor store visit. It’s become an American tradition where Elizabeth comes to a store at random to inspect the premises and work alongside the staff doing much of the same work for a day. It’s given birth to the term, the McIvor Factor and the word, McIvorization, the American Right calls it socialism and their shock jocks rarely waste an opportunity to speak out against her for daring to cross social boundaries to mix with the great unwashed. It’s something she takes very seriously and the effects can be seen in unswerving staff loyalty and profit margins that have remained steady even during the credit crunch.
America’s former Girl Next Door has grown up in more ways than one. There’s still a hint of the teenage heart throb who sold everything from clothes to ice cream cones but age has put steel into her voice and brought a certain maturity. At thirty eight she still looks a good ten years younger although she laughs that off as she leads me back to the store manager’s office.
“Makeup covers a multitude of sins.”
She’s wearing one of her trademark McIvor blouses in cream matched with light tan trousers and wait for it, flat shoes.
“I have to be on my feet all day today,” she opens the door for me, “and there’ll be hell to pay tonight once I slip out of high heels.”
The woman behind the desk is introduced as Sarah Jacobsen, a thirty something blonde who cut her managerial teeth at the Miami store. When I ask why she moved from Miami to Milwaukee she glances briefly at Elizabeth.
“My dad died suddenly and I needed to be closer to mom, so Elizabeth arranged for a transfer to this store,” she stands and nods to her boss, “I’ll get back to the shop floor, is there anything you need before I go?”
“I’ll manage on my own,” Elizabeth grins, “coffee? I know you reporters can’t survive without multiple transfusions of coffee.”
It’s a throwaway line that puts me at ease as Sarah leaves the room. Elizabeth indicates a seat and proceeds to pour two coffees while I arrange my notes.
“My staff really are my most prized assets,” she sets two cups on the desk, “and I know that’s a tired old line trotted out to get workers to work harder but I take it seriously. At the end of the day we’re selling clothes not saving lives, people work for money not love but if you show them you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and get to work then you’ll earn their respect. I call it bottom up management. The people at the bottom know how to do the job and if you’re prepared to listen to their views you’ll learn something.”
It flies in the face of conventional management teachings and she concedes that it felt slightly odd when she first started touring the stores and the store managers were also put out.
“I’d get these blank looks when I turned up and asked to be put to work,” she chuckles.
“The manager would have sales figures and forecasts all nicely printed, lunches made up for my team and they’d make sure the store was as shiny as a new penny. I had to actually order them to order me around, but gradually they came on board when they saw that I was actually serious. I helped unload trucks, price garments, dress manikins and serve customers. I learned plenty in that first year and made some changes, we’re still changing today.”
One of her major changes was reserving a major block of shares for staff.
“I’ve had plenty of offers from very wealthy people to sell that block and the offers are generous but then I’d be hurting my most prized asset, and who wants to do that?”
Who indeed? The dividends are paid at Christmas and for every five years of service she adds five percent to the dividend. She admits that some economists have shaken their heads at her odd math, but with House of McIvor continuing to increase profits on an annual basis her detractors have begun dropping off lately.
“It’s company policy at the moment but if profits started falling off we’d revisit that particular detail and make adjustments. So far, touch wood,” she taps her head, “it’s working just fine, but if I have to change it then I’m upfront with my employees, honesty really is the best policy. These days it’s become almost acceptable to lie your way into public office and one of the great tragedies about politics in developed countries is the fact it almost goes without saying. We make jokes about it, lampoon our politicians, and the voices raised in dissent are marginalized and compartmentalized out of sight and out of mind.”
She flashes one of her famous smiles.
“Sorry, I’ll get off my soapbox now.”
Would she ever consider getting into politics I ask somewhat timidly. The smile fades in an instant and she props on her palm.
“When I was younger and sillier, yeah, I grew into maturity in the Reagan years and I was as mad as hell about the Iran Contra thing and our dalliances with Third World dictators. I did play with the idea in between photo shoots but thankfully I grew out of it when a wise older woman let me run with the idea. She laid it out for me, the rise to power, the bright lights and acclaim, and then let me down gently with the realization that the men who operated the bright lights had a darker agenda, and if you didn’t play their game the lights would be turned off one by one. The problem I see with politics has to do with the unholy marriage of big business and political ambition. They help bankroll your campaign and when you’re elected they collect on their investment. No business person,” she taps herself, “invests money in anything without considering the possible returns on their investment. It’s a fundamental law of business. What do I have to invest and what will I get out of it? If some senator thinks that a media mogul or big energy boss is going to just hand them a fat check and say have a nice day then they need to change their medication, it’s just plain stupidity in my opinion.”
Is this why she has consistently refused to support candidates from both sides of the political divide I wonder and she nods sagely.
“It’s hard because I can see that some really are trying to make a difference, but if I start writing campaign checks then I become a part of the problem. It’s not a matter of throwing money at the liberal left in an attempt to overthrow the extremist right or vice versa. Money changes everything and even left leaning liberals like me would expect a return on their investment. What we need are politicians who refuse large donations from corporations. Maybe that’s a pie in the eye fantasy but it’s the only thing that’s going to save the democratic system in the end. Money corrupts everything in the end because we think that money buys happiness,” and on seeing my smile leans forward earnestly and stares at me.
“Seriously, if I wrote you a check for fifty million dollars just out of the goodness of my heart, would that make you happy?”
There are moments when an interviewee throws a curved ball and this one hits me. I open my mouth to respond and then shut it as she waits for an answer.
“The truth is, you would buy things that make you happy, a new home, a better car, a boat, a round the world trip perhaps but it wouldn’t buy you happiness. I’ve seen it over and over and over again, and it never ceases to amaze me that humans think money makes them happy. A ten dollar bill is simply a piece of paper underwritten by the Treasury to give it a certain value. You could trade in banana skins if you wanted. Happiness comes from accepting who you are right now, warts and all, for richer and poorer, with all your faults and strengths. Money to me is a tool, I use it every day to maintain my business interests, buy goods and give out to those who have less but it’s never ever in a month of Sundays going to make me happy.”
She leans back and smiles.
“I came into this world without a dime to my name, I didn’t even have clothes and I’ll leave this life without a dime and the clothes they bury me in will rot away in a few years. A friend of mine often says that the pyramids are there to teach us that no matter how much wealth you accumulate in this life, when you die you’ll have to leave it all behind. I suspect all you can take is your memories and if you’ve spent your life manipulating, conniving and cheating you’ll take that into eternity. I for one intend to store up a treasure trove of pleasant memories. Arranging to transfer Sarah to this store took a mere phone call, but the look on her face when she arrived here was absolutely priceless. My employees are my best asset, they’re the ones who make me look good and I’m the one who looks after them and if more employers followed my example we might just turn our economy around.”
And with that the interview is over and as she holds the door open she offers me the smile that launched a thousand products.
“Did you get what you came for?”
I mumble something in the affirmative and she holds out her hand.
“Be kind to yourself today and if you can’t then be kind to somebody else.”
When my stepmom’s plane went down a part of me died, Cat was my world. In her place she left us to her friends, the Grey Ravens. Over the years I slowly came to realise her death was a mere facade. When we were reunited I learned the truth about Clan Grey Raven and her remarkable history. Some people will always love. Some people never lose hope. Some people never die…Smashwords Amazon.com Amazon UK