Oral Histories

John (Jack) Felton

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

John (Jack) Felton Biography

John (Jack) Felton was vice-president of corporate communications at McCormick Spice Company in Baltimore MD from 1977 to 1994.  Following his retirement from McCormick, Felton became The Institute for Public Relations (IPR) chief executive.  Prior to his corporate career, he served as a first lieutenant with the U.S.A.F. Strategic Air Command during the Korean War.

Felton joined the University of Florida faculty in 1993 as the Freedom Forum Distinguished Visiting Professor. He is a former two-term president of PRSA and winner of its highest award, the Gold Anvil, in 1992.  In 2002, Felton received the Arthur W. Page Society’s Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his contributions to strengthening the role of public relations.


Interviewer: A sense of ownership. What was your greatest challenge as vice president in corporate communications?

Felton: The first one was a built-in assumption by the leadership of McCormick that because they were the leading Baltimore firm, they gave the most to the community. They were the big company in town. They thought everybody knew who they were. And we were, we’re the largest spice industry. But I had to try to help them understand that, with the financial community particularly, there are other McCormicks. There’s a McCormick’s place in Chicago. There was a McCormick place up in New England somewhere up around here I think near Cape Cod where they went bankrupt, and it was the McCormick name again. And I would get calls hey did your company just go bankrupt. I said no, no, no that’s a builder. And I even found a little firm down in Arkansas that made bourbon, and I actually bought some and sent it to some of our leaders saying “What do you think of this, is this is a new acquisition.” And it was so bad they sent it back to me. But I thought, we’ve got to find a way for people to understand that McCormick is the McCormick spice firm. And I kept hearing in Baltimore you know you can tell people that work at McCormick and Company. They are around spices so much they smell like vanilla and cinnamon and the spices. And I thought we got to capture that some way. I thought well let’s make the annual report smell. So I didn’t ask anybody if we could do it and we tried and we put the oleo resin, each spice and herb has an oil. And that’s where the flavor is and so we tried that on the slick pages of the annual report. It wouldn’t dry and I didn’t’ think the financials would like figures that ran all over the page. And then we tried it on the cover in a lacquer. I think we sprayed it on. And that was great too except that when it dried, you didn’t get the smell. And we had just about given up on trying to find a way and one day i was using some really dark black ink and we were doing certificates and I was signing them and somebody brought me a blotter and I thought that’s it. So we took uncoated paper that was recycled and used that for the financial pages. And after we printed them, we ran them through the printing press one more time with this oleo-resin that looks like honey. It absorbs into the paper. And then the rest of the annual report was slick paper good for photographs and so on. And so I took the first copy into the chairman Harry, and I said Harry here’s the first copy of the annual report. What do you think? He said, “It smells like cinnamon.” I said “yeah it’s supposed to.” He said “What?” I said “Yeah.” So he called me the next morning. He said “Jack, I took that annul report home. Left it in the limousine. When I got in this morning the whole car smelled like cinnamon.” I said, “That’s the point.” “That’s the point.” And so we got tremendous press about an annual report that smells, really smells the headlines were in Business Week and all kinds of places and a friend at Hallmark called and said “Jack, an annual report that smells like spices was just terrific. What a great idea for a spice company.” He said “I left mine on the coffee table, and the dog ate it.” He said “Will it hurt the dog?” And I said “no it won’t hurt the dog.” Matter of fact, spices are used often in zoos and with animals that don’t eat proper things. And spices are used to get them to eat good nutritious food so it won’t hurt the dog at all. And a guy from Merrill Lynch called and said Felton you son of a gun. I said what have I done. He said I can’t get anything done today. And I said “Why what’s the problem?” “Everybody is sniffing your GD annual report.” So, and every year since then the annual report smelled like a different spice. And at last count we had about 152 spices in the spice line. So we won’t run out soon. And it’s fun. The Baltimore Sun runs a pocket change poll and they put money in their from the pocket as to which one can name which spice it is and we take the first annual report when they come out down to them and they all see whoever gets the right smell for the right spice gets the little pocket of change but still gets some great attention. It was fun. But that was a challenge and we had it that way.

Interviewer: What was your greatest accomplishment?

Felton: Well I think the first answer would be hiring some very, very talented people who had great creativity. I had a lovely staff. And again giving them the guidelines and turning them lose and saying come on let’s see what we can do with this together. Within the guidelines of proper procedures and everything we have to do and one of them came in one day and said “Jack, what about a TV show for McCormick?” This was long before anyone was using videotape in the company. And I said “Well that sounds great. But it’s so expensive. How are we going to do it?” He says “I have a young friend who wants to get started in making video films and he said he’s willing to do it for you know peanuts, just to get started.” And I said “Okay let’s you know write the show. Let’s get a wrap and do what we call it McCormick News Wrap.” And we used two employees ,very attractive young people and they told you the latest news like a newscast. And we used slides since our people travel all over the world. We have beautiful slides of everywhere. So we could tell them everywhere new things were happening throughout the company and we discovered that a 12-minute video like that was wonderful to send to all of our managers to let everybody know what was happening and we would include the CEO and a number of officers and they loved it. And the first time we showed it to people, again I hadn’t said can we do this. They said “Jack this is great.” And the CEO loved the idea. But they couldn’t believe that we had brought it in under such a nice budget. I said “Well it’s not going to stay this kind of a cost. Because as we expand it, it’s going to be more.” But I know that if I had gone to them and said “hey I want to start doing a TV show about McCormick” they probably would have said we don’t have money for that Jack. We’ve got other kind of communications but by doing it showing them the effectiveness of it then I could get away with it so I was a bit of a rascal sometimes. I seemed to get away with it lots of times. The other big challenge was a takeover attempt by a very wealthy, very huge pharmaceutical firm in Sandoz. And they came after us in a cheating sort of nasty way buying stock as much as they could before they had to expose and we finally caught them in the act and then began to do some investigation. Found out that they had bought King Ferry Seeds and you couldn’t find seeds on the shelf anymore. They weren’t good at marketing in America. And they had bought Ovaltine. Do you remember Ovaltine when you were a child? They you couldn’t no one had ever heard of Ovaltine the current generation because it had disappeared also. So we knew we were dealing with someone who wanted us for money and the investment kind of things rather than for anything good for our employees or for the company. So we were engaged in a knock down drag out pretty tough fight. And in one of the sessions we’ve been sitting around with the outside advisors we brought in from New York the lawyers and investment bankers and they had been for days telling us what we couldn’t’ do. And we’d say well how about this. No you can’t do that. You can’t do. And finally I went to Harry, the CEO, and said Harry you know I am tired of hearing what we can’t do. I need some quotes for the Wall Street journal. I’ve got some friends. We have to get some statements out. And I said we just can’t sit around day after day with these high price talents telling us what we can’t do. And if it’s okay with you tomorrow because you can’t very well do it. I am going to stand up right in the middle of the meeting and say hey wait a minute. I want to know what we can do. And he said “Great Jack, do it.” And I went to the treasurer and did the same thing. He was all right. So that next day we went in. They were doing the same thing. And the chairman is sitting at the one end of the table. The treasurer at the other and I am in the middle. And they start no we can’t do that. Can’t do that. You know and I am putting gloves on underneath the table. And they think they’ve convinced us of something and I stand up and throw the gloves down on the table and say look gentlemen, I am ready to fight and we’ve got to get something going here and I have to have a quote for the Wall Street Journal. And that did it and we got started, and when my friend at the Wall Street Journal said well Jack what do you think Sandoz is going to do when you folks tell them no? That you just don’t want any part of this. And I said ”Well why don’t’ you ask them?” So he did and the Swiss had a spokesman named Dr. Denot. And Dr. Denot did what typical Swiss German type people did. Sort of braced himself and said, “Well we’ll take them over anyway.” And that just blew the whole thing wide open. Even the Sandoz people in the states said “Jack we apologize. That’s not the way.” The mess the whole thing, but it did reveal their so we tried to embarrass them as much as we could with finding out they were moving inventories from different country to country and in Europe to avoid taxes and that they polluted some rivers in Switzerland and done some really bad stuff and finally had to have a meeting with them. And so they announced from New York they were going to fly to New York and come down by train, Amtrak to Baltimore. And I went into Harry and I said, “Harry I have an idea.” And he said, “What?” And I said, “Why don’t we pick them up in your limousine?” And Harry said, “I am not going to put those [inaudible] in my limousine.” And I said, “Wait a minute Harry. Let’s talk a minute.” I said “We cant’ tape record in Maryland. It’s illegal to tape record conversations. But I said if we had a Swiss German driver he might be able to listen to some of their strategies because they’ve been playing so many dirty games with us. We might as well see what good information we can get. And that’s certainly legitimate. They are in our car and if they are not smart enough not to talk in our car, that’s their problem.” And he said “that’s a good idea.” “I’ll do it.” And then I said “ Also the firm, the PR firm that’s handling them in New York has announced an article in the Baltimore Press to tell them that they are going to have a big press conference right after the meeting at our headquarters.” And Harry looked at me kind of funny and I said “Well see they didn’t bother to call us to see if we had a joint. They didn’t even do the courtesy to have a joint thing. I said “Harry why don’t we instead of having the meeting you are going to be driving them.” “Instead of having the meeting at corporate headquarters, why don’t we drive them down to the McCormick property’s headquarters. It says McCormick Properties. They have a very nice boardroom. Why don’t’ we have the meeting there?” And we did. And we had practiced with Harry saying no, no, a thousand times no, in Swiss German. And they came out very unhappy. And looked around and there was no press. And they sort of grumbled and got back in the car and got back in the limousine. And meanwhile the Press the Baltimore Press was up at our normal headquarters and that’s why you have to be very careful a good lesson don’t’ assume without checking what’s going to happen and we fortunately were able to keep them from making all kind s of promises that we knew they probably wouldn’t’ keep for our employees and the Baltimore Press when they said “Well Jack why didn’t you tell us?” I said “They called you. I didn’t’ call a press conference. It was not my responsibility to tell you where they were having their press conference. If they are not smart enough to tell you where they are having their press conference, that’s their problem.” And we won. We ended up they backed away completely and we bought back the stock. But it was a very tough, tough time and at the end of it I said “Harry you know it had some moments. And it had some moments of fun when we could outwit them and out do them, but I said let’s don’t do this one again.”

Interviewer: Is a Swiss German driver be he able he or she able to obtain any information?

Felton: No, they talk small talk about Baltimore and going back the conversation was all about how mad they were that the press didn’t show up. They couldn’t imagine they were giving the poor press guy from New York a bad time about. “I thought you said you were going to have the Baltimore Press. I didn’t see any press there, and giving hell, which I laughed over.

Interviewer: We’re back to challenges and accomplishments again. At IPR, what do you think was your greatest accomplishment?

Felton: Again I think hiring the right people. Michele Hinson was marvelous and when I talked with her I knew she was bright and talented and could do things. And so the two of us started out with a grand total of $18,000 and we are now raising almost $1 million in research. And then the next thing was to pick my successor. And I think Frank Oviatt has been marvelous. And he and Michele have just taken it to all kinds of new things. We now have things we are doing in Europe and we have cooperation with all of the PR agencies and I think great respect for the kind of research that’s being done. It was needed, so badly needed and but by having the right people and turning them loose with guidelines. You see what happens and they’ve just done very, very well. So I am very proud of what the literature that’s been produced. We used to say you couldn’t measure public relations. People don’t’ say that anymore because the measurement commission proved the way that we can measure what we do and show the CEO our effectiveness. And that all came out of the getting the right people together and say hey let’s have at it. What can we do here and I think we’re now on a program to build a library of essential information which will be free to everybody in the profession and that essential library is going to be wonderful for people to plug in on all kinds of different categories of public relations because each of us has almost a unique kind of public relations we do depending on the company or organization we work for but we have some essential knowledge, and if we can all get that same track and I think professors at schools like Penn State and Florida are going to be able to use that as a wonderful library too and the fact that it’s available free. I think that’s just a wonderful asset for the Institute so I am very proud of what has happened there and what Michele and Frank Oviatt and the Board of Directors have done. It’s terrific.

Interviewer: Well, what about challenge. Did you have a particular challenge at the Institute for Public Relations?

Felton: Well first of all with $12,000 the challenge was you know can we keep it going on enough until we can get. And by getting people to come to Florida we started doing some symposia on different topics, and we did one on international public relations. We did one on terror but we were talking about the kind of terror where someone would put some type of a liquid in the water supply and we did one on in Rome do we do PR as the Romans do or do we do it you know which is a big ethic problem and then we did one on measurement. So those began to get a reputation for us. People came to the campus at Florida and participated. And those were some of the first papers that we did. And they began to get the news out that we were or what we were about what we were trying to do and just built, built, built, and soon we were what we are today and going for new things in Europe.

Interviewer: Is there anything else that you ‘d like to talk about. Anything else you’d like to share for the next generation or?

Felton: One little bit, last bit of advice. Be careful how creative you are and some of the creative ideas you do. We were sitting at U.S. Steel one day, and we had a new kind of steel we had to promote called Cortan and it was called Cortan because it has a lot of copper in it. And it was designed for use in high bridges and high buildings that you can’t paint very often. The copper in it the steel forms a patina on the outside a rusty looking sort of paints itself. But we were faced with how are we going to get people to understand rusty steel is strong. So smart aleck said well, why don’t we get a big animal like an elephant to stand on it. So guess who inherited that job. And I called Sarasota and said hey you got a circus elephant? We need an elephant to stand on a, put four barrels down and put steel plate on it and have an elephant stand on it. Didn’t have anything; I thought uh oh. So then I thought Hollywood. Got a person in Hollywood who had a trick small elephant that could stand on one foot. I thought that would be even more spectacular to have an elephant standing on one foot on the Cortan to show how strong it was. So we sent the steel plate to LA. Hired the photographer. Had all the things ready. Got out there. Here’s the elephant. And everything else. We got it all set up. Got the elephant up on there. Elephant stands up but they forgot to tell me that when this elephant stands up this elephant wets. So, suddenly we have a situation in the photograph that was not quite what we wanted. So we had to clean the steel off again. Get the elephant back up and the one of the pictures in my in my den is me running like hell away from the elephant because we got him up ready to get the photograph . We did it a number of times but we finally got the photograph. And it turned out to be one that got picked up as a publicity thing everywhere, using the ad campaign, used for all of the marketing of the Cortan. It was a huge success. But getting that photograph was not quite what we expected, but it was kind of fun.

Interviewer: I want to thank you very much for taking your time from your busy schedule. You could be playing golf or something right now. We appreciate your sharing your thoughts.

Felton: Well you are very kind and I’ve always had fun telling my stories and thank you for asking.