Crossroads Ahead

Outlook 2004 : Turning Points

January 11, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A turning point can be as sweeping as a rickety wood-and-cloth contraption taking flight for the first time, as seemingly inconsequential as the color of a chicken.

Sometimes we see them coming. Often we don't, and only in hindsight is it possible to pick out the moment that changed an individual, a product, an industry, the world. Clear as day or shrouded in obscurity, pivotal ideas and events are happening all the time, ripples that turn into tidal waves.

Today, The Sun explores people, places and things that seem poised for a turning point in the world of business in 2004.

The ingredients simmering in the political and economic soup to produce turning points locally and nationally are many: A presidential election. The attempt to rebuild Iraq. Maryland's first Republican governor in nearly two generations eager to get a policy foothold after some initial frustrations in a traditionally Democratic state.

Turning points can be far-reaching -- countless ones from the past still affect Maryland today, from the fire that roared across 70 blocks of Baltimore exactly a century ago this year, to the hurricane 71 years ago that tore Ocean City and opened an inlet to the sea, to the interstate highway that connected Baltimore and Washington 33 years ago.

The most critical juncture in state history may have come 213 years ago, when Maryland ceded land to create the District of Columbia. The country has, in a sense, been repaying Maryland ever since, making it one of the biggest recipients of federal funding per capita.

Some turning points are evident immediately, others are more inconspicuous.

For Frank Perdue, the Eastern Shore chicken farmer, it came down to pigmentation. Adding marigold petals to the feed in 1953, he turned the poultry's pale skin yellow and successfully promoted the result as a sign of a healthier bird.

"A chicken that laid the golden egg" is how Memo Diriker puts it. The director of Salisbury University's Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network, he's fascinated by turning points in marketing.

"Low and behold, something that used to be a commodity that people bought by the pound, they bought by the brand," Diriker said. "Who would have thought of a chicken becoming like Coca-Cola?"

Sometimes, an astounding concept is merely in search of a turning point: Wilbur Wright was absent-mindedly warping an empty box with his fingers in 1899 when he had an epiphany, envisioning wires tugging at aircraft wings in just that way.

Four years later, the Wright brothers launched a 12-second flight. Fifteen years later, air barons were fighting a war on high. Seventy years later, men walked on the moon. The Wrights' turning point touched off a revolution.

Diriker thinks people ignore potential turning points every day, missing opportunities to transform their bank accounts, if not the world, because they don't challenge the status quo. Consumers accepted that computers come without software until Bill Gates questioned why -- and ended up with a $32 billion company.

"To appreciate the power of epidemics, we have to abandon this expectation about proportionality," Malcolm Gladwell writes in a book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. "We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly."

In 2004, Maryland is facing crossroads seen and unseen. Buckle up.

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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