OMAHA, Neb.-When Tires Inc. owner and President Jerry Hoberman moved his company's headquarters from West Omaha to a predominately black neighborhood in northern Omaha, he failed to understand how deeply rooted the issue of race can be. In fact, he felt he was taking extra care when he involved his employees in planning the move last January to quell fears some had about moving from suburban West Omaha.
The company completed its move in June after spending $1 million to renovate a former grocery store to house the headquarters, a warehouse and a retail outlet. The move to the area, which is generally considered economically depressed, promised to save the company as much as $1 million in costs.
Mr. Hoberman knew the move was good business. Still, something was wrong.
A black employee quit soon after joining the firm because she said Tires Inc. didn't hire her husband because of the color of his skin.
Then Mr. Hoberman started noticing an increase in service complaints from black customers.
Although he contends his employees, most of whom are white, were not acting differently than they had before the move, they still seemed at odds with the new customer base, 60 percent of which was black.
``I always felt that my company was sensitive to our customer base,'' Mr. Hoberman said. ``How-
ever, once I moved into an area where the majority of our customers were African American, we then started to have an escalation of racial issues.''
Although he underestimated the pervasiveness-and perhaps the subtlety-of the racial issues his company would face, he didn't un-derestimate the ability of individuals to change.
When Patricia Metoyer complained that a Tires Inc. employee made a derogatory remark about her name, she decided to talk directly to Mr. Hoberman.
As a business owner herself, Ms. Metoyer was acutely aware of the problems retailers can have if they aren't sensitive to their customers. She suggested Mr. Hoberman get in touch with another black business-owner who might be able to help: her accountant, Frank Hayes.
Mr. Hoberman made the contact. And at their initial ``one-on-one''
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meeting, the two businessmen decided to hold a ``sensitivity training session'' with Tires Inc. employees. Mr. Hayes said he believed he was in a unique position to help explain issues from the neighborhood to Tires Inc.'s employees.
``I'm not an expert in this,'' Mr. Hayes explained during an interview. ``But I could relate some of the experiences that I have had and give (the employees) the opportunity to ask questions.''
What people sometimes fail to take into account, Mr. Hayes continued, is the ``baggage'' customers and employees bring to a business transaction.
His advice: Leave that baggage behind and treat each situation on its own.
``You need to be aware that people have their own perceptions and problems,'' he said. ``You can't look out for everyone's problems. . . , but you can look at people as people and see they want to be treated with respect.''
The meeting, from all perspectives, was a success.
And a large part of that success can be attributed to Mr. Hoberman, Mr. Hayes said.
``He is serious about it-he's not just going through the motions,'' he said. ``Jerry Hoberman is a businessman. He knows how to run a business, but sometimes you get caught in a vacuum and you think everything you do is right.
``But he was able to get out of that little box and see other things, and that says something about him as a person,'' he continued.
The sensitivity program continues, with plans to hear presentations from the handicapped, homosexuals and people with AIDS, Mr. Hoberman said.
Many business owners are angry about the Americans' with Disabilities Act, Mr. Hoberman said. ``But I wonder, would we be so angry if we had to spend a day in a wheelchair?''
Tires Inc. employees now are required to go through two hours of sensitivity training a year. The presentations are made and videotaped. Managers at each of Tires Inc.'s 13 outlets are required to watch them.
``People are happy that we aren't talking about the bottom line and selling, but we're talking about how to be sensitive to people,'' he said. ``It's customer relations but from a humanistic point of view.''
Still, the issue is tough, and Mr. Hoberman readily admits he isn't sure where the sensitivity program is leading the company.
He has been talking to an organization to see if they can set up a training program that would help minorities qualify for positions at Tires Inc., which typically hires only experienced technicians and managers.
In October, Tires Inc. adopted Belvedere (Elementary) School, where the enrollment is 90 percent non-white. On May 19, the school and Tires Inc. will hold a carnival at the headquarters parking lot to raise money for computers. Already, they have raised nearly $49,000 for the project from local businesses, Mr. Hoberman said.
``There are two major issues facing America today: One is the issue of race; the other is the deficit,'' Mr. Hoberman explained. ``As an individual, I can't do anything about the deficit. But with the racial issue, each and every one of us can walk out of our office and try to make a difference.''