By Lisa Bergson I don't have a lot of long-timers. Even though MEECO has been in business for over 55 years, we're down to just one employee with more than 20 years of service. Terry Lasher worked for my father and has the stories to prove it. "I used to feel so sorry for him -- he'd walk out into the plant from the front office and never look up. I wanted to say, 'Doctor, look around and see what these kids are doing.' They just took advantage of him." (My father's doctorate in physics earned him the moniker.)
Terry -- or Mrs. Lasher, as she prefers -- is an attractive, solidly built, 64-year-old grandmother, with dark brown eyes, delicate Roman features, and a caplet of blonde hair. She joined MEECO as part of the estimable Lydia Jede's electronics assembly department. When I started working there three years later, babysitting the plant while my father recovered from surgery, I was amazed by Lydia's group.
REEFER MADNESS. They were a tidy, perfectly functioning three-woman team surrounded by filth and chaos in our open-floor plant. Over the years leading up to my father's surgery, from which he never finally recovered, the "place was going down in the dumps," as Mrs. Lasher puts it. "I would ask Lydia, 'Who's our boss?' And she would say, 'The Doctor is our boss.'"
By then, my father had lost his middle managers. Lydia's department formed the bulwark for MEECO's eventual turnaround. "She was tough," Mrs. Lasher recalls. "If we didn't have enough work, she'd make us take the boards apart and start all over."
In those days, MEECO's annual sales were a quarter of their present volume, with almost twice as many people in production. "There were kids everywhere," Mrs. Lasher says. "Your father couldn't turn a kid away. He had a big heart." He also had taken to hiring ex-cons, which added to the general mayhem. With plenty of downtime and no supervision, there were mattresses strewn about, along with beer cans, marijuana joints, and competing boom boxes.
STEADY HANDS. Apparently my father did have some notion that things were out of control. At one point, he asked Mrs. Lasher to leave Lydia's department and supervise the sensor-cleaning and resensitizing department, a covey of wild, young factory girls. "They cursed at me. I couldn't control them," she remembers. "I went to the Doctor and said, 'I want to go back to Lydia. Those girls don't respect me.' I was so embarrassed -- he lined them all up and told them, 'Now you listen to Mrs. Lasher.' That just made it worse. Finally, I couldn't take it, and I left and went back to Lydia."
There she stayed until long after Lydia retired. Gradually, recognizing her acumen and work ethic, my production manager began to cross-train Mrs. Lasher on other facets of production. "I was nervous," she admits, but also delighted to discover her ability to learn new tasks. Today, she winds and seals our sensors, precisely handling delicate rhodium, platinum, and iridium strands, among the most demanding and critical functions of our operation. It's a process that she, in conjunction with our manufacturing engineer, helped perfect.
By now, Mrs. Lasher has endured countless downturns, always returning after each layoff, and presently bolstering my team as we enter our ninth month of short work weeks and furloughs. "Are you with me?" I ask her, after announcing the deep cuts needed for yearend. "You know I am," she exclaims, giving me a warm hug. Like my father, she calls me "Honey" and gives me cards for all occasions, as well as birthday and holiday gifts, including incredible homemade Christmas cookies.
WHAT WOMEN WANT. These days, with Lydia and her other colleagues long gone and her younger friends departed to concentrate on child-rearing, Mrs. Lasher seems a bit lonely. She used to love to giggle and gossip. But now, I often see her eating lunch alone, attired in the blue lab coat favored by my production people. Sometimes we go out for lunch together or along with Lydia, now nearly blind, who lives nearby. They reminisce about my father's reign.
"Lydia was there for eight or nine years, and she never got a raise," Terry recollects. "The Doctor depended on her for a lot of things, and I told her to ask him for a raise. When she got the next paycheck, there was a nickel raise!" She continues, "I asked the Doctor why he didn't pay us more, and he said, 'Women don't need big salaries. It's the men who have to support their families.'" I shudder to think.
For our lunch dates, Mrs. Lasher dresses elegantly and chauffeurs me in her immaculate car. One time, as we drove away from Otto's Bavarian Restaurant, where we always meet Lydia, I ask her why she's stayed at MEECO for all these years. "I like the people," Mrs. Lasher replies. She smiles before adding, "And it's only five minutes from home." Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at email@example.com