Executive Santa: An Exclusive Interview

‘Ho! Ho! Ho! Yes, I have to admit that my organization is outdated, especially for a big mail-order business. And we do have a problem in maintaining contact with our customers. But I think you’ll agree we still have a great deal of customer appeal! This is especially true among younger children coming into the market for the first time. Although we are losing business ‘off the top’ as it were as children reach the age of 10 or thereabouts. It’s the old 80-20 rule – you make 80 percent of sales among 20 percent of the population.

‘I don’t want to appear cynical, but our old-fashioned image is something we actively cultivate. Heritage is all the rage these days. Management by Nostalgia (MBN) is what our consultants call it. Which is one good reason for keeping the Ho! Ho! Ho! (although we have updated the logo) along with my traditional dress and the reindeer. Mind you, I have had to give up the white ermine linings to satisfy the conservation folk. Nylon is so much more practical anyway. And we have had some flak from the animal rights lobby. No, I don’t think reindeer pollute the upper atmosphere, do you? Well, not if they go before they leave. And anyway, the stuff is biodegradable, isn’t it? Not like greenhouse gases. (Sorry about that! Ho! Ho! Ho!)

‘You’re right, of course, that sleighs are not the most efficient method of transport for the millennium. But the new 24-reindeer extended range sleigh which we brought into the fleet in time for this Christmas enables us to fly nonstop to Australia, traveling above the weather and commercial traffic. The trouble is we don’t show up on radar screens, which makes it dangerous at low altitude with a full load. Nothing like as dangerous as dodging chimney pots in the old days mind you. I must say it’s worth seeing the looks on airline passengers’ faces as they flash past you on the way down.

‘Distribution is still a problem. We’re trying to improve it by bringing in toys by air freight direct from China and India to the regions. I’d say less than a third of toys are now made at our North Pole workshops. And we’ve extended our distribution points by appointing local Santa’s on a franchise arrangement. This has not only improved our cash flow but has broadened our equity base. This enables us to improve distribution in the under-privileged parts of the world. All part of the social audit as you can see from our Annual Report.

‘I get sick and tired of critics who say that because we only work one day a year we aren’t cost efficient. Well for one thing, it’s three days if you count the time zones. And for another, we’re kept pretty busy all year around. I mean talk about shop early for Christmas! We already have orders for next year. Then you have purchasing, manufacturing and management training. You won’t believe we sent a dozen senior elves to Harvard Business School this year. (Harvard had trouble believing it as well.) We lost half of them to headhunters. So if you come across any little men with pointed heads in your business you’ve got Santa to thank.
‘Of course we’ve been affected by the recession like everyone else. This has meant cost-cutting right across the board – except for the Board – on items like gift-wrapping, travel and entertainment expenses and company sleighs. We’ve also introduced a pay freeze, which can be pretty painful if you work at the North Pole.

‘I’m expecting a vast improvement in customer relations when we finally come on stream with our computerized present system (CPS). At the moment, about half of all letters we receive go unanswered (much to parents’ relief, I should say) and presents occasionally get mixed up. I remember a little girl in Ruislip got a Star Wars outfit while the little boy next door had to cope with a giant inflatable doll dressed in Tyrolean dirndl. It took one of our reps ages to sort out. Some kind of problem with the little boy’s father.

‘Boys will be boys! One of our worst problems came when a six-year-old hacked his way into our previous system and helped himself – and his mates – to hundreds of presents. He was only found out when he started running a ‘cash and carry’ business from his nursery school. I thought ‘Ho! Ho! Ho! We can use talent like this.’ So we got him to design our new inventory control software.

‘People are always asking how we can possibly run a successful global business from the North Pole. I have to admit it used to be very difficult when we had to rely on postmen finding their way in the snow. Letters sometimes took months to get here. Children these days usually e-mail their requests to www.santa.com. Quite a few of our staff now telecommute from as far away as Africa and Latin America. And we have regular management meetings on our virtual reality conferencing system. ‘Having an offshore headquarters has fiscal advantages as you’ll appreciate. Ho! Ho! Ho! Holdings is incorporated in Lapland as a charity and pays no tax on repatriated earnings. The Santa Claus Foundation is domiciled under Swiss law as you’re probably aware.

‘A secret of our success has been an ability to constantly redefine our core business in contemporary terms. Should we continue in the business of distributing presents on a seasonal basis or start a package tour operation? These are some of our current concerns.

‘Whether I exist or not is the great ongoing challenge. I can live with the credibility gap between my prime target children and their parents. The problem is that I’m finding it harder these days to believe in myself. But this is something all managers have to face.

‘Still, I’m confident that I’ll be around for quite a while yet. You may find my management style more durable than most people think.

‘A Happy Christmas everyone. Ho! Ho! Ho!’

Roger Collis Timesonline 2006 www.rogercollis.co.uk