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Finding value in corporate history

Marketplace Staff Jun 16, 2008

Finding value in corporate history

Marketplace Staff Jun 16, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: General Electric took a hit today. Shares dropped to their lowest point in more than four years after JPMorgan cut its rating on the company — said GE’s going to have trouble selling the jet engines it makes what with airlines having so many problems. And weak ad sales on NBC aren’t going to help any.

All of which just goes to prove a point: On Wall Street, it’s all about what’ve you done for me lately?

But the companies themselves do have an appreciation for history. More and more of them are keeping track of their past in corporate museums.

Marketplace’s Cash Peters found out not everything on display is necessarily a masterpiece.

Cash Peters: Did you know Toyota has a museum? Quite honestly, it’s a miracle they do. PR woman Cindy Knight:

Cindy Knight: We only started this maybe 10 years ago when we were celebrating our fortieth anniversary in the United States. That’s when we started to look around in our closets and our garages and say, “Hey, what do we have that displays and tells our story?”

And what they had was almost nothing.

Knight: We had some vehicles housed in a dingy, nondescript warehouse and that was just about it.

It’s crazy! As you can imagine, there followed a lot of frantic hunting around: going to garage sales, emptying their closets — whatever they did — until eventually… ta-da!

Peters: So you have a museum then, I hear?

Woman: Yes, and welcome to the museum.

Thank you. They built a museum: a warehouse in Torrance, California, filled with $11 million worth of beautifully-preserved Celicas, Corollas and the disaster on four wheels, the Toyopet. Oh yes. Curator Susan Sanborn.

Susan Sanborn: We actually started with the Toyopet, bringing it to America in 1957.

Peters: The Toyopet?

Sanborn: Yes, the Toyopet Crown.

Peters: Which I wouldn’t buy only because it sounds so awful! Who thought of that name?

Sanborn: It just was a shortened version of “Toyota’s Pet.”

Knight: We celebrate our failures as well. Our first car in America was a complete flop and it caused our company to go back to Japan, study what we did wrong…

Peters: Detach the horses and put an engine in it?

Knight: Yes, and then come back with something we could actually sell to the American consumer.

Ooh, you know who else has a great museum? Levi Strauss in San Francisco. Now, they were much better organized.

Lynn Downey [Video]: The Levi Strauss & Company archives is a treasure-house of garments…

That’s their historian Lynn Downey on a video, and true, it’s really fascinating.

The company began when a guy called Jacob Davis came up with the idea of putting metal rivets in the pockets of work pants and Levi Strauss… well, I guess he quit writing waltzes for a while to market the things. Of course, if I’d payed more attention to their museum in San Francisco, I’d know this stuff.

Downey [Video]: The company acquires historic garments from a number of different sources.

Downey: This is a pair of jeans that got too damaged to wear, so a guy left them behind in the mine so somebody else could hack off some of the denim to patch another pair. When mines would become abandoned or collapse, these changing rooms would be these little time capsules that these wacky guys in hazmat suits would go in, break in and pull out the clothes and sell ’em to me.

Downey [Video]: These garments that we have here all tell a story. They belong to somebody in a particular time…

Downey: We have always known what we were doing, which is not to say we didn’t make a few missteps. We made polished cotton pants for men in 1958 in the exact colors of orange, lemon and lime Jell-o. OK, they weren’t really popular, but we knew…

Peters: Where are those on the display?

Downey: Oh, they’re in the archives, tucked away where nobody can…

Peters: They’re in a plastic bag under your bed at home.

I love that laugh… [Clip from “Mr. Sandman”]… make me a dream.

Like Toyota, the Levi’s collection also has holes in it, a: literally — it’s a bunch of torn jeans — but b: because they had a disaster.

Downey: We lost everything in 1906 in the big earthquake and fire.

Peters: Oh, you did?

Downey: All of our corporate records, all of the patterns, all of the correspondance, everything about the deal between Levi and Jacob went up in flames in 1906.

And they still managed to scrape a decent museum together!

But its great that corporations are keeping track of their history. Also, they’re all still looking for stuff, so if you happen to have an ancient pair of Levi’s tucked away at the trunk of your Toyopet, get in touch.

There’s no hurry — Lynn will always be there.

Downey: My goal is to work in the archives until I’m 103, drop dead in the collections and haunt it for all eternity.

Peters: Well you see, basically, I would like to see you hung up from clips in the archive.

Downey: Oh, that would be fun.

Peters: I would like to see you just strung up by your shoulders. I’d pay to see that, actually.

There you go.

In San Francisco, California, I’m Cash Peters for Marketplace.

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