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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Old Colleagues

From 1987 until the end of 1996, I was employed by a company called Heller Financial. Heller was one of the first commercial finance companies in the United States, founded in 1919 by a cantankerous curmudgeon named Walter Heller. The company went through many phases in its history, and shifted in a big way back in 1984 when the firm was sold to a large Japanese bank. The new owners had bought a "pig in a poke" and the company's problems were immense. New professionals were hired and the turnaround effort began. To make a long story short, the effort succceeded - eventually. The Japanese took the company public in 1998, and Heller was sold at a huge price to GE Capital in late 2001. During the last years, and especially after the sale to GE, many Hellerites jumped ship. Here in Chicago, there are dozens of organizations with former Heller folks in positions of responsibility. GE absorbed the Heller organization, discarded its name and brand and lost or fired almost all of the poeple.

A small group of Heller alumni had a fine idea. Since Heller was a seminal experience in the careers of so many people, perhaps there would be some interest in a reunion. The word went out, e-mails flew through cyber-space and the event occured on Thursday, August 11 at a two-story bar just north and west of the Loop. It was wild - probably 500 people crammed into the joint. All sorts of folks came to the reunion - from mail room staff to Group Presidents. It was equal parts nostalgia and networking. Many fermented beverages were consumed and many backs were slapped.

I have always found it interesting how work experiences augment, or even substitute, for family units in modern America. Heller was a corporation but it was also a social grouping and a collection of shared experiences that caused people to bond. I was sad when I left, and I am told there was basically a wake on the night before the company was officially sold to GE Capital. All of this merger and acquisition activity has a large emotional component, and the emotions live on for quite a while - they were on display at the Heller reunion last Thursday.


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