The Stories We Tell: Corporate Culture, Large and Small (Nike and Pocock)

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I was privileged to tour two corporate headquarters—Nike near Beaverton, Oregon, and Pocock Racing Shells in Everett, Washington. I love touring company facilities, so I looked forward to both tours. I like to see things being made, and I hoped to see these companies’ products and processes.

Although both Nike and Pocock make premier products in their fields, the company cultures I saw on these tours could not have been more different. I saw again—as I have seen at so many other companies—that corporate culture is created by the stories businesses tell.

The strongest cultures and brands develop when leaders send the same messages to employees, suppliers, customers, and the public. Consistency in message brings the right people together, both inside and outside the company, to deliver on the brand’s promise. Inconsistency in message sows confusion and strategic incoherence.

Nike 20150731_102922Nike’s headquarters is huge. It encompasses blocks of office buildings and includes soccer fields, a football field, indoor gymnasiums, and two child care centers. We were told that Nike has around 60,000 employees worldwide. I think about 6,000 of them are in the Portland, Oregon, area.

Nike doesn’t manufacture in the U.S., so we could not observe product lines. We were kept far away from any product design and development areas. We didn’t even see any employee offices. We were shown displays of old products, as well as as the state-of-the-art employee amenities. An employee soccer match was underway as we walked through at noon.

The headquarters complex is a paean to the company’s products and history, as well as to the champions who have endorsed Nike’s products. Most prominently, of course, is Michael Jordan, and some of his Air Jordans were under glass. Statues and plaques of famous athletes from all sports line every hallway and outside walk. (Some people on our tour became starstruck when Serena Williams rode past us in a golf cart.)

Nike was founded in 1964, and adopted the Nike name and swoosh trademark in 1971. It has, as we all know, grown into a worldwide conglomerate. Our guide told us about the early days of Nike, when Bill Bowerman developed the waffle bottom for the original shoes (allegedly after being inspired by his wife’s waffle maker).

Thus, despite its current size, the stories Nike tells still revolve around its humble beginnings. However, the tour guide also stressed Nike’s commitment to health, environmentalism, and charitable giving, in addition to improving sports equipment and apparel.

Nike also emphasized its relationship with the University of Oregon athletic program. One person on our tour had been to Eugene to see its athletic facilities and came away impressed with Nike’s contributions to the physical complex as well as with the products Nike provided the Ducks.


pocock logoIn contrast to Nike, the headquarters facility of Pocock Rowing Shells is a large metal shed, not far from the large complex in Everett, Washington, where Boeing manufactures airplanes. Although Pocock has been in operation in the United States since 1911, today it boasts only about twenty employees total. The company runs just one day shift of craftsmen making its synthetic rowing shells. Each boat is made one at a time from mold to finished product in that shed—no assembly line production for Pocock.

The small administrative area is on the second floor of the building, where there are a few offices holding dated furniture. Its inventory management system consists of a single whiteboard that shows the delivery schedule for each boat on order.

Knowing the reputation of the Pocock boats for quality, I was underwhelmed by what I saw. I had expected a much bigger facility, with far more boats being manufactured. Our guide indicated that Pocock intended to keep its small size and hand-crafted products.

Like Nike, Pocock’s public spaces feature athletes using its products. The difference is that there is only a single hallway, instead of a multi-acre property. Like Nike, Pocock maintains a close relationship with a college athletic program—in this case the University of Washington crew team.

At Pocock, too, the mythology around founder George Pocock and his son Stan (who died last year) were part of the story. Our guide pointed out George Pocock’s involvement with the University of Washington crew team that won the 1936 Olympics, as described in the current bestselling book, Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown.

Unlike Nike, Pocock let us watch its products being made. We observed a rowing shell under construction for about half an hour. (I wasn’t allowed to take pictures.). We weren’t allowed on the manufacturing floor, but we could see several layers of material laid down during the space of those thirty minutes. Our guide was fairly open about the materials and processes used on the shell, though it is a proprietary process. This was the type of experience I wanted out of both tours, but only received at Pocock.

* * * * *

Both Nike and Pocock operate in the world of sports. There are similarities in their stories—both talk about excellence, from the foundation of their companies to the present. But Nike’s stories also emphasize its worldwide reach and size, while Pocock emphasizes family and craft. Each is successful in its arena, but their cultures are different.

Another Pacific Northwest company’s culture has been in the news recently—Amazon. Amazon’s culture is said to be hard-charging and performance-driven. I’m sure if I toured Amazon’s headquarters, I’d see something quite different than I saw at either Nike or Pocock.

I wonder if the stories Amazon tells about itself match the stories that have been reported.

What company culture has impressed you? How do the stories told foster that company’s success?



Filed under Leadership, Management

2 responses to “The Stories We Tell: Corporate Culture, Large and Small (Nike and Pocock)

  1. Hi Sara! This is a great topic! Since you mentioned Amazon, last night I came upon a defense of Amazon’s culture here:

    It was an interesting read and, from it, I just gather that some people thrive in some cultures more than others (yeah, obviously). I’ve encountered people whose high levels of sensitivity naturally leads them to value social harmony, first and foremost, in their environment (the scientific terminology is “allocentric”). I’ve also met people who enjoy a bit of competition and a good scrap (“idiocentric”). So I imagine these very different people (with different natural capacities for creativity and innovation) would have a different experience working for Amazon.


    • Thanks for the comment.
      You are right that different corporate cultures can be good fits for different people. The key is getting the right fit, and developing a culture that attracts the people needed to deliver on the products and services a company wants to provide.

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