Archive for Sunday, January 27, 2002

Employees can learn from Enron, Kmart cases

January 27, 2002


Even after his employer filed the largest retail bankruptcy in U.S. history last week, Joe Bickford isn't terrified, scared or particularly worried about his financial future.

That's because he's prepared.

"If Kmart does go down, I have some skills I've been working on," he said last week, taking a break from fixing a neighbor's deck in the Oread neighborhood. "I've just felt I've needed to be diverse in my investments and skills.

"I feel fortunate. I don't want this to happen I have good feelings about Kmart but I'm ready if it does."

The 43-year-old Bickford is among 650 employees at Kmart's giant Lawrence distribution center who are awaiting word about their long-term futures from officials at the corporate office and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Chicago.

The company pledges to keep its stores open and supply chain moving as a reorganization plan emerges. But some analysts say as many as 700 Kmart stores could close.

Such uncertainties are giving workers nationwide reason to think twice about preparing for what has become an inevitable fact of business life.

Change happens.

"Staying at the same job for 30 years just isn't going to happen anymore," said Peggy Johnson, a certified financial planner for American Express Financial Advisors in Lawrence. "You'll work in a place for a few years, and move on either by choice or not your choice. You just have to prepare yourself as best as you can."

Getting ahead

There are several ways to soften the impact of an abrupt job change or similar financial emergency, business and financial experts say:

l Build a cash reserve. Johnson suggests keeping enough cash on hand to cover at least three months of expenses, such as paying the rent, mortgage, utilities, food, gasoline, insurance and other essentials. Keep the money in a savings account, money-market account or short-term certificate of deposit.

Even without signs of trouble, she said, just knowing the money is there can be a relief.

"Think of a cash reserve as a goal, just like buying a house or saving for retirement or an education for the kids," Johnson said. "If people build a cash reserve, they'll have so much less stress in their lives and feel so much better it's unreal."

l Diversify your assets. Kent Fisher, a financial consultant for A.G. Edwards in Lawrence, said that all investors should focus on building a financial portfolio that is balanced, and based on a person's age and risk tolerance.

And when it comes to investing in stock, he said, don't put all your proverbial eggs in one basket. Just ask the Enron employees who lost everything as the energy-trading giant collapsed, or the Kmart workers whose company stock dropped from $13.55 a share in August to less than $1 after the bankruptcy filing last week.

"It doesn't matter who you work for," Fisher said. "It is not a prudent financial plan. You're incurring more risk."

Added Johnson: "If anyone takes anything out of the Enron, the Kmarts of the world, diversify. Don't be all in the company's stock. I don't care how good your company is, you (shouldn't have) your whole life in one company."

l Don't get too comfortable. Just because Lawrence boasts a relatively constant economy building off a foundation of stable jobs generated by Kansas University doesn't mean everyone's occupation is safe.

Farmland Industries trimmed all but 12 jobs from its fertilizer plant in town. Student-loan giant Sallie Mae moved away. Honeywell International laid off workers at its Lawrence avionics plant, shifting some production to Olathe.

Just last week, Davol Inc.'s parent company, Tyco International, agreed to spin off its health division. The move cast into doubt the future of the medical-supply manufacturer in Lawrence.

Kmart's bankruptcy may not have triggered any job losses yet, but the prospect of changes is a signal that all workers should be preparing for change.

"We're not insulated from the outside world," said Debi Moore, a senior vice president at the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. "This is a very good example of what happens with companies with mergers, acquisitions, downsizing anything can happen to any company at any time.

"This is a wake-up call."

Upgrading skills

Michael Gebhards, who works in data processing at the distribution center, has been busy getting up early to balance work and classes at Johnson County Community College, where he's on track to receive an associate's degree in computer information systems.

Gebhards said he decided to broaden his skills to "get out of being a manual worker" after 22 years at the center. He's also been careful not to fill his 401(k) plan with Kmart stock.

"I believe in what they say: Diversify," he said.

It's the same approach taken by Bickford, who has been working at the center since 1976.

About 10 years ago, he pulled $35,000 out of his Kmart savings plan a program financed by personal savings and corporate contributions of Kmart stock and used the money to help buy three old houses.

Bickford and his wife, Marci Francisco, soon renovated the homes as rental properties. Today they have 14 rentals, giving them a head start on retirement income to go along with Bickford's pension and the couple's respective 401(k)s and other savings plans.

Bickford is on temporary layoff this month, while many of his fellow associates at the center are working only three days a week to close out Kmart's fiscal year, which ends Thursday.

He's confident the company will survive only with a "much smaller nucleus" of stores and that the Lawrence distribution center will endure, given its central location and strong efficiency ratings among Kmart's 18 centers.

But Bickford hasn't, and isn't, taking any chances. He'd considered buying a new $25,000 F-150 King Cab a few weeks ago, but he opted to spend $1,700 on rebuilding the engine in his old 1982 pickup instead.

Prudence, planning and preparation are his defenses against the great uncertainty.

"I couldn't survive totally on our investments I'd definitely have to find something else to do but it makes the transition much better for me," Bickford said, checking on his rental at 1042 Ohio St. "I should have a little bit of something to keep me afloat for a while."

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