In the 1990s, loyal worker has become afterthought

November 16, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SINCE HE has only been working at Hess Shoes since the Kennedy administration, nobody knows about Steve "Stoney" Blumberg. The chain collapses, and we dwell on the death of a corporate logo. But those who kept the thing going over the decades become afterthoughts.

For 127 years around here, Hess sold shoes to the entire family, and now this will cease. Two weeks ago, the chain's officers announced that their final 11 stores would hold going-out-of-business sales and close their doors.

This puts Hess into a lengthening line of local retailers, once flourishing but now gone, whose names evoke not only a product but an era: Hutzler Bros. and Hochschild Kohn, Stewart's and Brager-Gutman, all once very big and all now gone.

We lament the loss of familiar company names but sometimes overlook those such as Blumberg who went to work every day over the years and imagined a sense of security, which is strictly a word out of the past in the American workplace.

Blumberg managed the men's department at the Hess store in Towson Town Center. He started working for Hess when he was still in high school, in the early days of the chain's Reisterstown Road Plaza store. Later, he helped Hess open its Harborplace location. And he worked for the company at Hunt Valley and Columbia, and commuted from his Baltimore County home out to White Flint and Tyson's Corner, and he helped open the Hess operation at Owings Mills Mall.

He comes from that final American generation that once imagined settling into a company pretty early, and showing loyalty, and out of that loyalty came a two-way commitment for life, or some gesture of sincere appreciation at the end.

So now, many years later, all assumptions are rewritten. With the news that the German company that purchased local ownership of Hess 21 years ago has decided to cease doing business, Blumberg winds up wondering where, at age 55, he can look for new work.

"Two weeks ago," he was remembering yesterday, "they brought about 30 of us into this meeting at the main office, over near Security Boulevard. Larry Drombetta [president and chief executive officer] said the parent company had decided to close Hess Shoes.

"He dropped it like a bomb. He sounded remorseful, but he said they were closing everything. I said, `Oh, my God, at my stage of life.' I'm 55, I've got all these responsibilities, and here I've gotta start over.' "

There is a wife, Adrienne, and son Scott, 13. Adrienne is assistant director of a day camp, which pays modestly. Last month, before the Hess news, the Blumbergs bought a new car. It was not exactly a luxury.

"We had two cars," said Blumberg. "One 11 years old, the other 13 years old. We figured it was time for another car, and we didn't figure this was coming."

Actually, as these things happen, more trouble was on the way. The bombshell meeting with Drombetta was 9 o'clock in the morning. By 11: 30 that day, Blumberg was filling out application papers to work at a department store at The Mall in Columbia. But, pulling out of Columbia, onto U.S. 29, his 1986 Camry had sympathy pains and died.

So there he was, about to lose his job, minus one car and saddled with new payments on a second car, feeling utterly abandoned on the side of a highway.

"I'm not trying to bring tears to anybody's eyes," said Blumberg. "I'm just an ordinary working guy, and here's what can happen. So I lie in bed at night and second-guess myself: Should I have moved on years ago? But, you know, you get comfortable with a company. A few months ago, Nordstrom wanted me. I said, `Let me think about it.' I thought too long. Now they don't have that opening."

Eleven years ago, he had heart bypass surgery. He came back to work, and has worked steadily ever since. But, obviously, medical benefits are a concern. Finding himself unemployed at age 55 was not part of his game plan.

Nor was the sense of abandonment. He said his men's department at Towson Town "was doing $2 million a year in business. The problem with Hess wasn't Towson Town, it was a couple of the other stores losing big money, and dragging everything down, and the heavy corporate hierarchy.

"But I'm bringing in $2 million a year for them, and what do I get at the end of all these years with the company? No severance, no vacation. After all those years, a flat $1,000, and that's it."

So he's left wondering: In the American workplace, is there still a market for his kind of worker -- the one who shows up every day, who takes responsibility, who shows loyalty to a company over years and years, and imagines such loyalty counts for something?

Or do we simply lament the loss of corporate names, and forget all those workers who made the company what it once was?

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