Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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Pet Milk Lesson 4

By the turn of the century, the Pet Milk Company was a thriving enterprise, helped along especially by war: the Spanish-American War in 1898 and then the First World War in the nineteen-teens.  Soldiers needed a reliable source of milk no matter where they were stationed throughout the world, and evaporated milk was a reliable source.  When the soldiers returned home after each war, they told their families about the canned milk they had had in the service.  Sales increased as a result.

But then the company faced another major challenge to its identity, for by the early 1920s, it was common for Americans to own refrigerators.

The purpose of the Pet Milk Company was to give people pure, unspoiled milk under circumstances in which fresh dairy milk was not available.  Evaporated milk was a solution to the problem of milk distribution in an age when fresh dairy milk simply could not be widely distributed.  But by the early 1920s, another solution had become feasible.  Milk could now be transported cool to the cities, thanks to refrigerated trucks and train cars.  It could be kept cold in grocery stores, and continue to be kept cold in customers’ homes, thanks to the new industrial and domestic refrigerators.  (There were “ice boxes” for a while before this—literally wooden cabinets with blocks of ice in them—but the ice would melt, of course, and had to be replaced all the time.  The new refrigerators made it possible to maintain a constant cold temperature inside the cabinet without having to keep it full of ice.)

This struck at the heart of the Pet Milk enterprise.  In the public’s mind, evaporated milk was quickly becoming obsolete.

Pet Milk Lesson 4: How long a corporate venture lasts depends on how successfully its members can adapt to changing circumstances.

Up until this time, the company had assiduously avoided advertising.  Upper management believed that it was morally wrong to twist people’s arms.  They thought that shoppers would buy Pet Milk because they needed it, not because they were seduced by some catchy jingle.  But now they began to look at advertising in a different light.  They viewed it as a form of education—a way of explaining to the public how Pet Milk could still benefit them, even when fresh milk was abundantly available.

They not only advertised; they created a radio program with an on-air personality—Mary Lee Taylor—who offered homemaking tips and, among other things, shared recipes that included Pet Milk as a vital ingredient.  Here is an archive of some of her programs.

They also diversified.  They made powdered milk and chocolate milk powder.  They got into the dairy business.  They sold frozen pies.

But diversification is always a question of balance: how to extend the organization’s activities without overextending.  If the organization is too conservative, it will miss opportunities to grow.  But if it is too reckless, it will exhaust its resources.  This is an important part of adapting, and no corporate entity ever knows for sure whether it is erring in one direction or the other.

Despite its best efforts, during the last half of the twentieth century the Pet Milk Company was in trouble.  People still bought their products, but not in enough volume to keep the company going.

(To be continued…)

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