Samuel Edwards: Hello; my name is Sam Edwards. Today is November the 9th,
2016. Today, I'm here with:
Wendy Cross: Wendy Cross.
SE: And today we're talking about Chroma Technology Corporation in Vermont, her
experience here as an employee, the structure, and the organization of the
company as well as we'll be hitting notes of history in a company in
talking--We'll be talking about that today. Wendy would you like to introduce yourself?
WC: My name is Wendy Cross and I'm actually [a] retired founder of Chroma at
this point. And being sort of on the outside right now, I find it really
fascinating in how being able to remember what Chroma was like in the beginning
and how it's changed but as I was walking in here today there's somethings that
are still the same. First of all, the smell, the colors. But a lot of people,
00:01:00there are a lot of people that have been here for years which I haven't found
any other position that I've had. I don't know if you want me to go to the very
SE: I mean, as a founder, that would be helpful for the interview because of the
other people I've been interviewing, newer employees seem to be more readily
willing to talk about their experience here, anywhere from 3 to even 10 years.
But yes; if you go back to the beginning and talk a little bit about Omega and
how Chroma started--feel free, yeah.
WC: Okay, well, I was not one of the original--I was an original founder but I
was not one of the people who actually decided that Chroma might be a
possibility. I came on just a little bit later actually before the company was
00:02:00incorporated. I worked for Omega Optical probably five years, maybe more. I did
not have any technical expertise, like some of the founders did, but I had I
believe I had a lot of practical exper-- expertise to do the things that you
need to do to start a company, even if you didn't have a computer, which was
pretty amazing. So, I was asked to come on and decided I would. I think at that
point I was the only woman which we joked about a lot. And again, the fact that
I didn't have a computer; I had a typewriter that sort of worked but we made it
work. I think also because I didn't have any actual, specific expertise or
00:03:00know-how that I ended up doing a lot of different things: whatever had to be
done and someone didn't have time to do. So, we--I painted; we found space; I
tried to bring in resources; I tried to figure out how we were going to ship,
write-up orders; all of the things that I believe a lot of people just didn't
think about--you know, you just couldn't wing things out the door. So that also
gave me, even though I didn't have a real in-depth knowledge of any of the
functions; I think I, I was exposed to a lot of the different things and needs
from different parts of the company, as we grew. So my job changed from a
jack-of-all-trades to whatever we needed and as people came on that I felt could
00:04:00probably do the job--one of the jobs better than me--and we needed the time kind
of left, left different jobs to someone else who is better at it or had the time
to do it, interest it doing it. So in the very end, I ended up being, on the
board (of directors) but also, just, purchasing manager which I think my
experience in all the different departments helped. I'm not sure where to go
SE: Yeah; if you want to talk a little bit about the actual founding, maybe the
relationship with Omega to Chroma
WC: Okay, well, my memory serves me--I'd always had frustrations with Omega:
trying to figure out how the employees versus the customers versus the owner:
00:05:00how they interacted and what was most important. I was hired as a salesperson
which I was not very good at but I was good at customer service and solving
problems, so that's where I ended up, just kind of moving myself there. Then I
guess a number of us started seeing people not being valued, being seen, seeing
people who worked really hard for the company being fired, and our customers not
being serviced. So, I think for me, anyway, that's one of the reasons that I
decided I would leave. Also the people that I respected the most were leaving.
So then we started her own company, as I said. It was fast in some respects that
00:06:00our customers really wanted us to get going so that we could supply them with
what they really wanted, but slow in other areas: money was an issue; who did
what was an issue. And I honestly don't remember if employee ownership was an
issue in the very beginning because there are so few of us and we all equally
bought in but I do remember that Paul after a while started seeing that, that
probably that's the way we, we should be able to organize yourself, considering
we were friends, we were co-workers, where people that respect each other, so
how do you decide who, who owns the company and who doesn't? And also bringing
in outside money was an issue and we decided that, that probably wasn't a good
00:07:00option because then you're beholden to whoever is investing in your company and
not in what you really believe in, so money would come first before actually
producing a good product and taking care of each other. I think working at
Omega, I had a false sense in the beginning of 'yes, employees are important'
and then I started realizing that we were encouraged to believe that you know we
were all responsible for the company's good, or the company's health; but in the
end, we weren't benefiting from it. There was only one person actually that was
benefiting from it and so that, that really struck me the wrong way.
SE: So I heard peripherally that, that one person, the owner of Omega, that
there was some involvement or thinking of turning Omega into employee-owned--I'm
not sure if that's true not, do you remember anything about that?
WC: That maybe true; I don't remember any real discussions and how that would
happen. I think he was trying to find a way to do it but still maintain control,
um, so it didn't seem like it was going to go anywhere. We did have or he did
hire a number of people to come in and do workshops--can't remember what to call
them--but they were, supposedly had different workplace experience and in trying
to bring people together and organize work. When it didn't, when it didn't fit
00:09:00in what the owner believed in, they were let go and I, I sort of remember that
happening with the employee-ownership thing--that the tools that, that he would
be given just didn't fit what he wanted to do so it was more or less how you
perceive something and then the reality and we were kind of stuck in the middle
and it kept changing. As an example, I, one time I remember working on a project
and with someone, along these lines, and, or with a group of people, were
actually very excited that we could really make something work and the owner sat
and listened; he told us to start this project and come up with solutions and at
the end of it, looked at us and said, "This is not what I envisioned."
Squash--so, no discussion. We didn't come up with his vision, his plan. So,
00:10:00again, it was kind of, nothing was real. And for me, I think that was one of the
things that I wanted to see in Chroma. No matter which way we went, it had to be
real, it had to be--I hate the word transparent--but--
SE: Why? At least in this case.
WC: Um, well; the word itself, I just seen thrown around in too many instances
and then it really doesn't mean what the user says it means. But, yeah I've,
transparency I think was, if I use that word, very important and I wanted--
SE: Insofar as management and ownership--
WC: Management, ownership; um, also what-- honest to be, honesty about what each
00:11:00one of us really was trying to accomplish or what the company was trying to
accomplish, you know not just the public view and the personal view. And I was
hoping that we could also, you know, we could all respect that we may not all
have the same views but I'd be able to voice my opinion et cetera. And that was
pretty easy in the beginning even though there were a lot of confrontations and
some people spoke louder than others. I think we all rspected that there were
other views and that we listened. I think as we started growing that became more
difficult. One of the reasons is because people were more separated even by
their jobs or their knowledge of what the business entailed and or we were just
more separate. It wasn't just six of us, even when it became 20 of us--
SE: There was some specialization in certain work groups or areas that--
WC: Some specialization--.
SE: --that didn't lead to, you know, 'if I'm in this work group I can't
necessarily make decisions about the other work group because our work doesn't even'--
WC: Right; or, or, 'I made this decision but I don't really know how it's going
to affect decisions on down the line--that it could be a very rational decision
for what I'm doing for what we need but there could be just one little component
that is not going to work with, with what someone else has decided on down the
line,' and you have to kind of bring those things together so when we're smaller
we were all more involved in all of the issues, processes or whatever, and we
could say, 'hey, you don't know what I'm doing here; you listen to me, let's see
what I'm doing and then we'll talk about it.'
SE: With the lines of communication, when the company was smaller, was it easier
to do--I mean, you know, when they're six of you or there's 20 of you, I'm, I'm
00:13:00curious in comparing the difficulty level of communicating those kind of issues
that you're talking about, with how you grew as a company, in terms of numbers
WC: I would say, I think--well for me, they were easier. I don't know that for
everyone. We did, we tried all kinds of things; when you're small you have a
little meeting and then you get a little bit larger and you have company
meetings. And we would do, after a while, we would do a lot of talking that
would never come to decisions, which on down the line, became, became an issue.
I think, again, it was easier to see, when it was smaller, it was easier to, for
me, to respect other people's opinions than maybe it was later on because I
thought maybe they didn't see the whole picture--you probably heard that a whole
lot. And maybe I wasn't seeing the whole picture. But being small--but also
being smaller, a smaller group, it was more personal. So personal where you
00:14:00could have arguments that may hurt people's feelings or that would escalate into
something personal instead of the Chroma issues that we're dealing with. That's
always continued, I mean it's always been there, I think, but not face-to-face
like we had before. I guess the face-to-face thing that was really important;
you had to sit there and, and talk and look at someone who was, was hearing you.
So now I'm off track again.
SE: No, no--that's fine. Insofar as looking at the structure of Chroma,
communication is something key, at least as I've noticed in my time here, that
there are still struggles with communicating and sometimes the way the current
management structure seems to be forming is also around lines of communication
and decision making. So, you know, what I've noticed too is that when companies
00:15:00are 5 to 20 people, what you're saying is very consistent with how they
experience the organization of their work and the completion of it. And as it
gets bigger, you know, those, how to organize work, how to coordinate work with
other people in other work groups and communicating through the whole cycle,
there are difficulties there, now I am curious about, because those do go into
the history of Chroma and how it formulates itself in the past, now, and in the future.
WC: And being smaller when we talked about being owners, employee owners, it was
really hard to get people or any of us, me myself sometimes, in certain
instances to realize that there is a difference between being an employee and
being an owner, if we were really trying to think of the company as a whole. And
I think probably Chroma is still battling with that to some extent but people
are much further, further apart now, possibly because of longevity, there are
00:16:00more people here. But when you--even with 50 people it was hard to separate
those two things and--
SE: Are you saying that-- go back to how you said that employee, being an
employee and being an owner-- are they two separate things that you're saying?
Or-- so how then does that play out in your understanding?
WC: Well, they in some instances they are two separate things. If I, if I'm in a
department and there's something that I really want and I really need for me as
an employee, it might not agree with what the company really needs to profit or
to move on or whatever. So I'm not saying that they're completely separate but
that you have to balance those two things. If I decide, decided that, ok, I, I
00:17:00want to do this 'this' way and only this way and it was going to affect the
product or whatever and affect the company's health, I'm not sure that's the
right word to use, maybe my need isn't, can't be taken care of immediately or
the way I wanted to.
SE: Wouldn't that be consistent with any sort of ownership board, you know
whether it's the board, stockholders that you know any one stockholder can't
necessarily get their way that they want within the company?
WC: I think that's true. But I think that stockholders are looking towards,
they're looking for the money for themselves. In an employee-owned company, I'm
not going to do well unless everyone in the company does well. I think that was
one of the issues that, even as far as compensation, was always coming up. So I
00:18:00have to take care, so if I want to take care of me, I have to take care of the
company. If you're just a stockholder, you know...
SE: The differentiation I'm making is a stockholder that's also not an employee.
WC: Right. A stockholder that is not employed, also [not] an employee is only
really looking after their, their interest, I believe. There are--the way you
vote is not, as a stockholder, it's not to protect the employees, it's not to
do, it has nothing to do with that: it's what you're going to make. What your
income is going to be, what you're going to get out of it. So I guess that's
where I came from up at the time. But the issue of taking care of business means
that I'm going to be taking care of them and vice versa and everyone is going to
be taken care of is what most important to me in the beginning at least.
SE: So as it, as the company grew in the beginning, in, you know, you can look
at it before you had 20 people, before you have 15, or you can compare and
however you want: how did it, you know, the culture of employee ownership inform
how people were hired for different positions, what have you? How did the
culture of employee ownership kind of inform the development of the company?
WC: I'm not sure if I'm going be answering your question but in the beginning we
SE: And that's often consistent with employee ownership and cooperators.
WC: Right. Friends or people that we knew or people that we felt would buy into
the employee ownership part. We did pay more than a lot of people had been
making; the pay scale was pretty flat at that time. There was security. As the
00:20:00company grew, I think we looked more for expertise, so in the beginning we were
training or that new hires were actually growing with the company, learning
their job learning what was needed to, learning about optics.
SE: As evidenced by people who were, have been here for the last 25, 20 years.
WC: Right. And we had people come in, you know, like Frank, well he was a
chemist, but he was a glassblower. He did have a job other, in another place
doing optics. That's probably one of the things that we did learn from Omega is
that you didn't have to be a degreed or a PhD person to come in and learn the
basics and then learning from their some of the people that are here that are
just brilliant and do a wonderful job probably didn't even graduate from
college. Not to say that college is not good but it gave people to use, a chance
00:21:00to use their skills and their intellect and whatever. I'm not sure how the
process of hiring goes now; I think it's more just--I shouldn't say I'm not here
anymore--but it's, we are Chroma's needs are more specific and the outside world
has come in, there's competition. So the company where I guess in the beginning
we felt we were the best we were the only ones that could do what we were doing.
There was very little competition.
SE: Not even from Omega?
WC: There was but it didn't last for very long. A lot of their customers moved
over to us and they started specializing in things that we didn't deal with so
even though there was a lawsuit and all of that I didn't see that we were
terribly, terribly competitive with them.
SE: Can you briefly state what that lawsuit was?
WC: I guess after-- I'm not gonna remember the timeline or the specifics--but
once the owner realized that, what we're up to, and that we were incorporated,
first he wished people luck in what we were doing and then when he started
realizing that we were selling--actually a real company--he decided to sue and I
think it was--I can't remember that what the exact suit was-- one with the
patent but then it turned out that we own the patent one of our employees
actually had the patent over him and not the owner of that company and then the
rest may have been intellectual property. And the whole lawsuit was very
bizarre. Where it was claimed that something that was used for hundreds of years
00:23:00in an industry was his property, some of it was, it was scary but it was also
funny. And we were lucky that we won.
SE: From what I understand, his actions were very much reactionary to
understanding that you were very competitive in the case, you know, the industry
you were both in, and that most of the claims were not substantial. And in the
case of intellectual property it was more of, it was after the fact that he
realized that you were competitive did he try to lock down ownership of the you
know the technologies or processes that you were using.
WC: And even materials that other companies were using. He claimed they were
trade secrets and there are other companies I think--
SE: I think specifically his claim of trade secrets that you all were using was
part of what went into a lawsuit.
WC: Right. So I tried, so I was reading that court records when I first left,
00:24:00the transcripts and it's a time that I really don't want to remember.
SE: We can move on then. So you know when did--you state when Chroma started and
I guess talk about its development through the nineties and what, how you were
meeting [the challenges] and what some of the challenges you were meeting within
the company and actually its internal organization and even competition in, you
known the larger markets.
WC: Well I think we were, we were facing the fact again that we were growing and
that our company meetings certainly weren't working.
SE: How were they arranged?
WC: It's hard to remember: they changed, I mean things were constantly changing
as far as--I don't think we ever accomplished anything with our meetings; we
00:25:00were trying to find a way, so the formats changed, there were groups that
changed; we had a, in the beginning it was pretty much consensus for one person
one vote for most issues, after a lot of talking. But if I; when I try to think
about it now it's some of it was people who spoke the loudest prevailed.
SE: Was there any attempt to curb how much space they were taking up, to get the
silent voices or the other opinions?
WC: I think so. We tried to; there were groups that were started--I'm trying to
remember even what they were called--employee group. I guess one of the things
00:26:00that was happening is we had to decide what issues are decided by what groups or
people or what positions and that, that became really difficult. There was, as I
said there were so many different changes in the names of groups and what they
were supposed to be doing.
SE: Ironically that's still happening.
WC: And the perception of what they were supposed to be doing. Or, or--I could
ask, I could ask in, in my position even as purchasing, when I was trying to
figure out 'okay where can I make decisions,' when could I, when should I not
make decisions who should I go to get the final say on this because of the
process or whatever. And I could go to six different people and get six
different answers. And I think that happened a lot when, when we were trying to
00:27:00figure out who, who has the authority to make those decisions. The employee
group became kind of--and that's not the official name-- became kind of a gripe
session I think. So that didn't really help the overall process. Like, I think
it's probably times that I don't want to remember, so I'm having a hard time
with it. The steering committee must have had a different name before that.
SE: My understanding of the Steering Committee is that it's--the last
incarnation started around 2005-2006 and has dissolved in the last year or so. I
mean we can move forward from you know that the initial-- we can move up to the
year that you had retired and I guess the years previous to that and what the
company was like then.
WC: Okay, well, the company was just constantly changing. Positions were
changing. One of the big issues became compensation and the--the ratio between,
I guess more by job description, which, for years, job description had nothing
to do with what you were compensated for. The main thing was you term here: how
much time, how many years you put in. Then trying to bring in people from the
outside became an issue where our compensation just seemed ridiculous to them so--
SE: As in too much or too little?
WC: Too little for the upper end and too much for the lower end and, and those
00:29:00two ends didn't agree at all and probably still don't. I think one of the things
that we always tried to do from the very beginning is make sure that anyone who
worked at Chroma made a livable wage, could support a family, have healthcare,
buy house or if they wanted to--And those were all the social things that were
really important and to me and to a lot of people. I'm not so sure that those
social concerns are that important to certain parts of the company any longer. I
think if, if I have them and I benefit from them, they're important to me but if
I'm not benefiting as much--boy, this sounds like the country-- 'if I'm not
00:30:00benefiting as much for myself, because of what we're offering someone else, than
I have an issue with that,' and I'm sure it's still going on. Although most
people here I think, they think of that, then they have really good hearts,
[they] really understand: to stay here you have to pretty much understand and
appreciate what's going on.
SE: Yeah, I think we're talking about, the comment you made about, what you're
saying sounds like the country, I mean-- The influences we get from political
and economic theory essentially--they've influenced the development of our
country and the normative perceptions we know, if you're this far down on your
experience and your wage, you should be paid, you know, as you said, the lower
end and even as now, of the tier scale that they have now is higher than, you
know, market value and at the top it's still, you know, lower than market value
00:31:00and the impression that we get from the general, you know, corporate America and
the business in America is that that's not how it should be; it should be, you
know, very low, very low at the bottom for a lot of people and very high for a
lot less people the top but as you said some of these social concerns I think
from what I've observed in the company, those are still consistent with, with at
least the people that have been willing to talk to me with how they approach
the economic inequality in this country and, yes, there is cash profit sharing,
yes there is stock sharing: but the amount of benefits that you get from, you
know, having a job that you're likely to have for the rest of your life; I'm
working a company where you have a pretty decent same control over your work;
there these other aspects that you get out of the company that's, you know, it's
not just, 'well here's your wages,'; you know, you're not being cut short. So
even in the case you are at the bottom, you are--.We can say that generally
speaking people who are at the bottom tier, who are unskilled, or, you know,
freshly educated at a college, yeah, they're getting compensated more than they
would, so I mean there's that that self-interest benefit that you get from a
00:32:00company but you know as you go towards the top of that scale there are other
parts of you know--and it's not always convincing to a lot people, other
benefits you get from the company beyond monetary compensation that are
imperative to the company's culture whether it's strictly reinforced or not.
WC: And I think for those issues, one of the arguments either way was, well,
'competition is really strong now,' and there are huge company buying up our
competition, lots of money behind it, so how are we going to compete? And I
think--it seems like Chroma has done good job. We--they are competing against
those companies and a lot of it from what I've seen is because of the way the
company is structured, because of the way people are treated, because they stay
here for a long time: you build up relationships with customers and companies
00:33:00and, so-- It's amazing when I think about it when some of these mega-companies
and we're still there: little company in Rockingham and even hearing Paul
[Millman] talk about-- Oops, I probably should mention names--
SE: Oh I'll be interviewing Paul and him having a relatively important stake in
the company, its longevity: mentioning him is not an issue because I'll be
interviewing him too.
WC: Well I think that the future of this company is going to be based on those
relationships with our customers and keeping really good employees that take
pride in what they're doing here. It's that balance of, of trying to stay, well
make a profit, and stay competitive but also take care of, it comes back to
taking care of each other. I mean, you could have the best product in the world
00:34:00but, at least here at Chroma, if you didn't take care of each other, I wouldn't
be making, like me, I wouldn't have my job, I wouldn't want to stay here, so
we'd be like everybody else.
SE: Yeah, I think it's interesting to look at other case studies in cooperatives
and employee-owned companies because they're, there's ultimately always that
pressure under globalization that you, when you get to a certain size you're not
just selling it to those in your state your region or country anymore; to really
compete; to really gain an edge and survive, you have to compete globally, you
know, what you know--Let's say that in Italy post-WWII, there's a huge
co-operative movement and a lot of that was sustained because of laws that were
being passed, tax laws and huge, uh, I mean thousands upon thousands of small
cooperatives organized with each other and their company, their country kind of
organized like that but you know by the eighties and nineties you had big
cooperative organizations like Mondragon in Northeast Spain that were huge
00:35:00regionally that did have a huge impact in, their growth was based regionally but
the, globalization happened and then, then it continues to happen. So those
pressures are very real when you get to a certain size and I think-- thinking
about the very, specially developed products that Chroma has and the markets
they're looking for, you can't but compete globally.
WC: Right, and I think maybe it's just the industry itself and what Chroma
makes. I mean there's competing for the for the instrument business and, and for
larger scale thing but I just, there's still this thought out there from a lot
of the customers, Chroma is stable and they care, again, Chroma cares about
their customers too, and it's science, so it's not, it seems like, well, science
drives the industry for this so Chroma has been able to keep up relationships
00:36:00with the scientists and the doctors and needs and finding out what they want and
then grow it into the instrument business. A lot of the competition comes in
after the fact, you know, things are developed or needs are developed, filters
are developed, and then they can produce a product that goes after that--you
can't really call it after-the-fact--but--
SE: It seems like this is somewhat consistent with what I've already learned
about Chroma is that because you have those relationships with these scientists
and you know at the forefront of science and you're creating very highly
specialized lenses and products for them, you're able to you know, Chroma is
able to push in that very new frontier where these other companies, when they're
getting brought up by larger organizations, the idea then you know to cut costs
and increase profits is to be able to mass manufacture and put as
00:37:00little human labor and you know customer service into the product reap as
much profit and with that, what you're saying after that fact, is that they're trying,
that mass production requires less intensive involvement with forefront scientific development.
WC: Right. But Chroma seems to be able to do both to some extent, which is
pretty exciting I think and the other thing is that the employees probably
because they're so involved in, in, the quality of the product are also really
willing to learn. I mean like Paul or some of the other people learn what's
really needed. They're, they're educated or they educate them self on what's
00:38:00needed and they're not just being told what to do, what's needed. So it's
kind of a partnership with the first end, with the scientists and then it on to the
companies and in the instrument developers and things like that.
SE: So when did you retire?
WC: I think that May will be my fourth year or third year
SE: Oh, okay. I guess, because the only other founder I've interviewed is Frank,
and he cut out in 2005, 2006--
WC: No I was--.
SE: 2011-- 2012?
WC: Time just goes--time just means absolutely nothing anymore! Other than that
it goes fast.
SE: So, uh, I'm under the impression that Paul has been retiring for 20 years--
WC: Yeah; he keeps threatening that and I think--
SE: Threatening as in like he's threatening to retire as in he won't help Chroma,
WC: No, no, no: he keeps saying that he's going to retire and that there are all
sorts of implications to that, for me personally. But I decided to leave, well,
I had such a personal issue with an animal, but also it seemed like the company
was going beyond me, my abilities. It seemed like we were putting in you know,
an all-new database, and I didn't understand any of it.
SE: Eventually, they're putting in a whole new financing database, today?
SE: I don't think that database or the systems they use have change for 10 years
and they're now doing all of that.
WC: Well the whole, what do you call that, the NRP system--
SE: Yeah, that's what they're changing.
WC: Okay well that that has been going on for years and we never, I don't think
they, you still don't have the whole manufacturing done. We were working on it
for years when I was still here. So--
SE: What is the NRP? Does that have anything to do with documenting the
processes in manufacturing?
WC: And timing them and all of that.
SE: Yeah from my understanding is that there are pressures from customers and
clients: I know HR is currently working on doing that and there is software that
they're trying to develop and there, there's growing buy-in, particularly from
the engineering team to do that. I mean, so there's an interesting roundabout on
how that's developing because while she's developing the software you have to
have the engineering over-heading people to also buy into it but then because
they're not the person that is always doing that, or training other people, they
each have some sort of responsibility but not total final responsibility of
00:41:00telling the trainer on how to train people. And then the trainer had to train
people but then there's somebody like, there has to be some orchestration of, in
that work processes for somebody that's not the higher engineering team of
people to do that. Simultaneously they also now have developed an engineering
manager that is going to have organizational power and what that power looks
like I think is limited in the sense of direct decision-making and control over
other people but it's in the sense that you've been talking about that there is
in this difficulty of decision-making, communication who has what power, and who
can do what. There's, I think who-- so you have the board they're developing and
working to finalize the chart of the board now but also heard that's been going
on for quite some time. They've settled on five chief executive positions with
00:42:00three people filling those: they are defining their purposes and those job
positions are also being fleshed out but then you know as a process I see then
is that that's from the top down but at the bottom within the work groups there
is that process of documenting and tracking and timing and formalizing or
constructions but they're pushing up to make sure that you know work groups are
organized to some management structure that's then organized to the c-suite then
into the board and whatever that looks like because cooperatives and
employee-owned companies, how to retain respect for collaborative democracy and
wanting a flat structure, when you get 200, you know when you get 250 you can
you can manage it but when you get 200, 250, when you decide to add a 19 million
dollar addition to your building and add another 30 or so jobs and you
eventually do break the 150, these formal structures, whether or not they're
traditional management, are literally required because these breakdowns will
become much more apparent and things will slow and God knows what that could do.
WC: And there have been I mean there have always been different external
pressures or reasons for setting up--when I was here, what I found was that they
were very disconnected. There was, I was always involved in a lot of the audits
our customers and a lot of that was based on documentation the way they wanted
it done, and improve to see. So you know I kept my stuff but throughout the
company--but that didn't always connect with what Chroma was doing and their
documentation and you know for those--
SE: [For] what documentation that existed.
WC: Right, right, and, and for those purposes, for purposes. And then there was
then sales have different requirements that they wanted to see happen. Nothing
ever really seemed to connect, like we're doing all these little bits n' pieces
to satisfy different concerns, both for the bank, or for our customers' audit,
00:44:00or for engineering or manufacturing. So we were reinventing things a lot and
doing the same thing in different ways but no, I had no idea that what I just
did was being done over here in this department or whatever. I'm becoming very
scattered right now. Now, what you're talking about is happening, is sort of,
when I was here, they were still working on a program, a manufacturing program
that was purchased, it was like the third one being tried. For mostly finance
wanted it, they wanted to be able to track cost and time and all of that which
00:45:00different departments just couldn't make happen and different people could buy
into so I don't know if that's what I've heard, I don't know if that doesn't
exist yet but the HR wasn't really involved in anything at that time other than
that very basic things, tracking peoples hours or something like that but it
wasn't down to the minute and I think what we kept saying was while we're very
different we don't fit into any of these categories that are being offered out
there for our documentation and what we really want to get out of it and it was
kind of left there so I'm not sure if--
SE: That seems to be relatively consistent with you know-- in the case of a,
you know, I'm comparing a lot of Chroma to this etheric, non-existent perfect
corporation that is hierarchical that does all these things in these efficient
00:46:00ways, as literature tells us that they exist-- In the case that you have a
position on paper within Chrome, it seems much more likely that whether or not
that position requires, or it says all these other things that people fill them
not only make what the job really is or what it should be, ends up being on
paper, but they evolve it into you know, what are their skills, where their
personality fits, what can they do for the company and you know this
decentralization there is obviously a, you know, take from Frank, there's this
magic that exists, it's, it's etherical: it's not tangible, that it can't be
defined; there is some, something that's informing this, the longevity of the
company, its continual growth. But as you've talked about, as in other
interviews that have talked about: to implement, the implementation of systems
and the perfect coordination or even near perfect, because perfect coordination
isn't going to happen, in the near perfect coordination between worker groups
00:47:00but then it's like, "yeah, that's not really what the company needs," you know,
whether it's this work group or that work group, finance, QC. It's an
WC: I'm not sure that's ever going to change I'm not sure really it needs to but
I was just thinking--I can't remember again--we had these committees setup, I
was on and we were interviewing some other employee-owned companies in the area,
that were in manufacturing and the, well the big difference was, were ESOPs
(Employee Stock Ownership Plan) which, do not, ESOPs have their own rules that,
that you have to follow but also they were companies that were started by one or
two very powerful people in the organization who were kind of trying to let go,
so selling part of it, the business, to the ESOP, but in almost every single one
00:48:00that we interviewed they would say, "oh, yeah well, you know, people's opinions
are valued: we have suggestion boxes; we have all these things; we have votes;
people's opinions are valued on how we do things," but in the very end, they all
said, "I make the final decision." And I think there were four of them, one was
a tool company, one was a great company--I can't remember--that there was still
someone there that would step in, they would allow things to go, as far as they
thought they could go, but they would still step in and make some of the final
very critical decisions and that probably happens at Chroma too, even though we
00:49:00don't like to admit it. maybe not just one person but there's never formalized
who really other than by selling the company where it has to be one person one
vote and then there's things by law where you have to take a shareholder's vote
where it's based on shares, never really come down and confirmed, especially, on
critical issues, who has said final say.
SE: I have my suspicions but it's not written into anybody's job description.
WC: And I'm not sure in some really critical, really critical situations whether
that could happen. People have pulled together with very different ideas in some
instances I think which was surprising, even the court case was surprising. But
it-- Chroma is very different from almost any other employee owned company as
00:50:00far as not having anything--well it's not an ESOP. Coops don't quite work once
you're dealing with this much money, where it's always one-person, one-vote.
SE: Have you heard the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain?
WC: Yes, I've actually read a whole lot about them.
SE: Yeah but that's a complicated system with its own history.
WC: I'm not sure that--trying to remember what that was-- it worked for a while,
the decisions were-- were there any high tech companies-- I mean some, some of
the decisions here--
SE: If you're looking for high-tech companies in the sense that they're like
Chroma, at the edge and the forefront of developing tools for scientific
research, you know, I, I can't quite say.
WC: You're right and it did work but it was a whole, it came from whole other
00:51:00place too--Chroma versus the Mondragon--
SE: yea, culturally, politically, timing: yea, very very much different but
that's an interesting part of the research into case studies for the
cooperatives and employee ownership because the very legitimate cultural
influences, so, I mean, the Mondragon, I mean, not that this is--this is a very
reductive statement about Mondragon but they had succeeded because of cultural
homogeneity compared to--there are degenerative cooperatives and they degenerate
because they reach heterogeneous cultures: they hire are people that are they
hired not for their fit for the company but they're hard for work. You know,
"we've been experiencing this boom in our production for so long, we need people
that can work, many people that can produce," and then there's other some of the
plywood coops that were in the North, Pacific Northwest--I guess in between the
seventies and eighties, those were the ones that had succeeded the longest were
culturally homogeneous and they were, there was a lot of Scandinavian heritage
00:52:00there. So, you know that's one of the things that have informed longevity but
you had mentioned the flour company and that's King Arthur. ESOPs are another,
kind of interesting that you said there's--they're employee owned but there's
still someone retaining power and I'm not sure about the legal requirements for
ESOPs because I know the legal standing for them are primarily around how taxes
are done, how ownership is done but I'm not quite sure the requirements for
WC: And I'm not sure that there is, that there are requirements and the
companies that we interviewed were companies that we thought maybe were closer
to what we were doing. I mean you can be an ESOP, like what was it, [say-ek] or
whatever, they are you know you have the thousands of people and yes, you're an
employee owner and I guess that means you get some of the profits at some point
but as far as your say other than some major year-end vote the daily say may not
00:53:00be there. And the companies that we interviewed were at least trying to get
people a say, were at least trying to get people to buy in but when push came to
shove it seemed like, and this is just my impression, that there was still that
one person up there taking care of everybody and saying, "Ok, now we're going to
do it this way."
SE: Yea, there's an interesting correlation between proclaiming and attempting
to practice the Democratic decision making and giving off the image, even
internally, even suggest, like even an employee body who doesn't own the company
has x-amount of say, that there's still that weary that, weary, you know handing
off the torch if you will from one or two original founders to the company at
large to making big decisions because you know even as you were saying even
about Chroma there is that you know can this person in this work group make an
00:54:00appropriate decision about what's happening in another work group, often claims
it's probably not because as you get larger and you know, going back to your
experience when the company was small, you did a lot of different things, you
found out what the company needed to do, when you are able to feel that out and
do that. But when you get 250 when you get 200, with Hypertherm for example here
in Vermont (their locations are actually in New Hampshire) when you get to a
1400, it's almost literally impossible for one person in one department or on
the other side of the planet to have legitimate say. So, you know, that there
are these relationships with Democratic decision making that really--I guess
there's fear uh you know even in electoral politics you know in states and other
countries like us--not like us that also have similar democratic elections--that
fear that the democracy isn't efficient in getting to the needs of the company,
you know, to keep it continuing [the company]. Those are very real and very
apparent you and you kind of pointed out different examples
WC: And I think, think one of the important things that is--It depends on what
00:55:00sentiment employees expectations are of employee ownership and I think Chroma
tried to figure that out or explain it and it changed over time but even at
Omega you were given a sense you and not, it was not as employee-owned company
but you were allowed to vote on what Christmas present the company would buy for
the employees; what to have for lunch, where to have lunch: all of these--
SE: Inconsequential things than the actual function[ing] of the company
WC: Right and I think some of the companies that we interviewed there was some
of that you know where people would say, "Oh, but you know, I can, I can put my
suggestion in and someone is going to read it," which is great but that doesn't
really mean you're having a say in operating the company or even with Chroma,
00:56:00you know, we decide what holidays were going to take, which is very important:
You're recognizing different people's needs. And then we have to face also,
figure out what the company's needs. We close on this holiday and everyone else
is open, you know, those kind of things. It makes you feel like you are having
say and you belong but in the important issues, do you really have that much of
say? And I think that's what some people have struggled with here.
SE: There's probably a bit more difficult here because there is--while there are
personalities and people who those final decisions tend to fall on, there is no
formal structure that nothing--there's nothing in line to finalize to say this
is a line of decision making and I think they're there's probably some fear
whether it's here or in other places of you know normal hierarchical, strict,
rigid, you know, management and decision-making structures.
WC: It's also how you perceive of management. I was constantly hearing that, you
know, we're afraid of management but because someone is going to be telling me
what to do in most things, but I looked at it more like management means that
you're the one who's taking the ultimate responsibility for what you're told
because I again I could say I walk around and ask people, even the steering
committee, you know I need a decision, so if they, if no one really wanted to
make that ultimate decision, they could be wrong and if you're a manager, you
can't just say, 'I did my best,"--no, that's it. You, you're ultimately
responsible for making something happen and I think that's hard thing to do and
that you can't have a lot of people running around saying, "This is what I
think, but I'm not going to make a decision." I'm probably not being very clear
00:58:00about that but I guess I don't, didn't see management if it's good management,
as bad. That means that, "yes, I'm going to take, I'm going to take in all this
input from everyone but I'm, it's my responsibility to make something happen."
SE: Yea, I should have been clear about this before, as I have talked about
management external Chroma and normative company structures, I talked about it,
demonized a little bit because of the connotations you get from that structure
in involvement in decision-making. In the case of Chroma, when I talked about
management in an employee-owned company and cooperatives, management is not the
same because if the workers are already collaborative, if you impose enormous
management structure on it, it completely almost completely eliminated by
suffocating it. But in the case of, at least of what I understand about even the
current engineering position that they're hiring for, actually I think it was
filled internally--it's not so much you know, you've got a work group of ten
00:59:00people and you got a manager and you do what they say from now on. It's that
manager coordinates; they do a lot more coordination and collaboration; they do
that that communicated work; they do that organization work that is otherwise
time lost. So you know, in the case that you had a steering committee they were
essentially you know people that have some oversight here and there, they had
senior positions here and there and they try to you know coordinate that, but
you know-- the way the steering committee fit into the company structure in the
past is kinda of, is different from what it seems what they're doing now. So as
I said, I think that the way they've formulated and are approaching imposing
management now in the structure is to retain that freedom of decision-making
that, to retain the autonomy the people experience in their own work group, but
you also achieve that broader coordination and collaboration.
WC: And you need that in, especially, I mean that, you're dealing with the
outside world so you can't tell a customer, you know, who has precise
01:00:00specifications to the way they want things done, you can't just say well, "Well
out guys just didn't want to do it that way," but who's responsible for that.
SE: Giving them the list of who say yay, and who said nay, "Well by unanimous
decision, we don't do that."
WC: Again, the outside world probably is and should be affecting the way things
are done here.
SE: To stay competitive.
WC: Yeah yeah, but not to the extreme because there's so much talent that you
don't want to kill that talent in doing-- but the outcome needs to be, the
outcome can be specific. how you get there maybe it's not all that important but
to find the customer and, "I want this and I want it done this way I don't care
what your processes are--But I do care-- but you know your processes, you can
document them I don't care," That's pretty much what they say. "As long as I get
what I want, when I want it."
SE: So this kind of jumps into the something I've been thinking about
particularly when--I've talked to Frank and talked to a few other people--when
you were at Chroma, I'm sure--it doesn't seem that it's changed much--but there
is some forward thinking about, you know, in forming the c-suite of the chief
executive positions as well as the new engineering manager position: How has
Chroma in the past, around forward thinking, how has the company thought
forward, you know, five to ten years? Has there been attempts to plan forward
and set goals and attempts to achieve them periodically?
WC: I think there have been attempts; I don't know if they were ever realized. I
mean we had his five-year plan meeting, a 10-year plan meeting. Now to be fair
some of it, some of it didn't work out because the technology changed or the
01:02:00needs changed, things like that. But as far as organization I don't know that we
ever probably--. Chroma did plan for things like the building or having to
expand or tried to plan for that.
SE: Those are literal and physical constraints that if you don't plan for that
it'll be a whole mess but I, I don't want to say 'less tangible' because you
know between five and ten years whether or not you have an extra 10 grand in
your pocket from cash profit sharing is you know very legitimate but I guess I'm
thinking of-- in the case of Chroma's management structures there you know maybe
even higher at the board level there is more direct involvement with
coordinating, "well we have all this this stuff recorded, we have all this stuff
projected and then the delegation of this manager in this group in this, you
know, whoever has these responsibilities meet these parts of this projected
plan," and then you're going back and you go--so I'm kind of thinking about that.
WC: I'm sure that was--is going on: what's been going on is still going on but I
probably wasn't a big part of it but I don't ever, I don't think anything ever
was finalized, anyone came to a conclusion that they could agree with. And I may
have been totally out of touch but I just remember meetings talking about a
five-year plan, or needing a five-year plan but I'm not sure that we identified
a five-year plan.
SE: Was that discussed at the board level?
WC: Yea, and I think it was probably discussed in other places too, like
steering, maybe finance.
SE: Understanding with the restrictions insofar as the profession, the law and
finance it seems like they'd be more likely to have a five-year plan or more
likely be able to write one up. I might be assuming too much about [finance],
you know, other work groups and their involvement with long-term planning.
WC: And again I think, I would recall talking about the need for long
term-planning though I don't really remember it happening. It could be very
SE: So in the case of looking at more specific historical changes that you've
seen the company, you mentioned not only was there the facts that there's the
founding of the company, the lawsuit from Omega, there was, it seemingly between
you getting 20 or even 50 people in the company, in your tenure were there other
significant historical changes in the company?
WC: I don't think so. I don't remember, sorry.
SE: It's OK, because as I see it too, as I have been investigating structural
changes, changes in the you know even the size of the company, who the company
is working with insofar as its clients: Those all incrementally, you know over
01:05:00ten, eleven, 15 years, what have you--
WC: Pay structure was a big change and I think it's changed at least once if not
more since I've been here and it's something that we struggled, struggled with
from the very beginning although I think everyone was much more intent on
keeping it flat in the very beginning when resources
SE: At least as far as possible.
WC: As far as possible, yeah. I wasn't part of a lot of the different pay
schedule discussion, discussions-- that was a big one. I don't really recall
anything else, you know. The need to grow, a lot of people really objected to
growing, a good number of people. And couldn't understand or see the need to
grow, you know, "we're a happy little company here, we're only making so--we can
01:06:00only do so much; why can't we just stay like this." That was something that was
really hard to overcome and probably still is; that was one of Frank's issues
was you know, "I'm happy and we're happy, we don't need to do anymore but just
stay alive." I think that other people realize that we do have to grow and we
have to change and it's never gonna end.
SE: And so goes the cycle of capitalism.
WC: Right, right. And who knows if Chroma's even going to be in the business of
making filters over time, you know: technologies change. But one of the issues
also I think that came up was: Is Chroma going to be ready to change with
technology; do we have other places to go?; other expertise. So what if you
don't need filter anymore?
SE: I know so little about the product in the first place I don't know how to answer--.
WC: I don't know if I should even be talking about this so you know
SE: I think that from the development like it, it's imperative to think about
you know where the company has been to know what the future [holds], is also
WC: Even dealing even with 89 North (subsidiary of Chroma) which is part of
Chroma, some people really object to even trying to keep that company going or
having that company but I think one of the thoughts behind it is well, again,
now we have some really good engineers and if there's new technology out there,
we'll be ready, we can, we can do it. If you don't need what we're making right
now maybe there's these new things that are coming on, needs we can do it, in
the industry, science or medicine, whatever.
SE: I'm curious on that note how the relationship between clientele particularly
01:08:00you know at the forefront of scientific investigation, specialists and their
needs from optics and held at all actually--because if they've been informing
Chroma's growth so far, you know, if technology advances and changes, I would
imagine that having --because some of the scientists I understand have only ever
bought filters from Chroma , and that for decades even; and then their needs
would actually continue to Chroma if you have a relationship like that.
WC: Yes, I mean, I think that's true. I think, I don't know for sure, and I
don't know what's been happening but I know that Chroma and gets a lot of heads
up from people saying, "Hey, you know we've got this new thing going or this
new application or a new need, can you help us with this?" And sometimes Chroma
can and sometimes they can't. All along just that the very beginning of
instruments was fun to watch. A scientist who's out there he's going out in the
01:09:00bush and he wants to be able to check water samples for the Cholera or whatever
but he doesn't have electricity in all of this. So we came with something he can
carry in his pocket and use. Very simple, it's very simple. But he went on to do
other things and he became a good customer. Then there's the whole space
industry which probably Omega does much more than Chroma in the
telescope--Chroma does some of that. There's the military, there's all these things.
SE: My understanding is that Chroma will not involve their sales to--I heard
this from Paul that they won't deal with military operations that are used
externally to the country but Homeland Security and apparently on the board.
WC: Yeah and I don't know about that. I mean, we used to, you know, certainly
didn't go out and look for that kind of work. There's some things that you are
01:10:00not quite sure what they be used for or they could be used for multiple
applications Chroma's products when I used to help with shipping, even to ship
internationally we had to convince customers or whatever that that these
products were not being used for weapons--to get into certain countries you have
to license your product and our product did not need to be licensed because it
was basically for a medical research. Although someone probably could use it to
do something else. Which it's like peroxide, know you could use peroxide for a
lot of bad things too but it's, that's not what it was intended--if you don't
buy a truck load of it. Yeah I'm not sure I even remember what our policy was
about weapons other than I didn't come across very much, you know. When I was
01:11:00still worked at Omega, they had two separate companies: one to not--so there's
one company where the employees were willing to deal with weapons components and
another company, but they're really the same company where the employees
SE: So we're now at an hour and 11 minutes, is there anything else you wanted
to talk about it?
WC: I'm sorry. I probably haven't been very helpful.
SE: Believe you me! Yea, so, for the record: last night, Donald Trump is
officially the president-elect with 289 electoral votes the last time I checked,
enough that Hillary couldn't and can't--Beyond that--no, I mean what I've
actually been finding in these interviews is that because of your involvement as
01:12:00an employee you know you've worked the company for, goodness gracious, more than
20 years, so very much it may seem inconsequential or you know that yeah this
happened was big in the company--all that ends up wrapping, wrapping into the
overarching aspects of this interview, which are, interview project, which are
your experiences, the history and organizational structure and
employee-ownership culture so what may seem not helpful is perfectly helpful and
it will add to the project for sure.
WC: Good luck with the project. I'd like to see when you're done.
SE: I'm sure a lot of people will.