Getting Accustomed To Nebraska

After living in NY for the first 37 years of my life & then in San Antonio for the next 13 (Note: Surprisingly so, SA is the nation’s 7th largest city with over 1.1MM residents. However, it’s the 31st largest TV market (up from #57 in ‘93) as it has almost no suburbs & thus, no Major League Baseball or football team.), my move to Scottsbluff, Nebraska in 2007 was quite the culture shock for me!

I had previously taken myself out of the running for a Banking Operations Director position for Capital One in New Orleans when I kept noticing all the high-water marks (from Hurricane Katrina) on so many buildings on my taxi ride back to the airport & turned down an offer from U.S. Bank ($$$).

I was juggling offers from FNMA/Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”) in Herndon, VA (right by Washington Dulles Airport) & Lehman Brothers (with their Mortgage-servicing subsidiary in Scottsbluff, Nebraska).

The only downside to the FNMA position was that the next-level job would most probably be in their Washington, DC offices…and I absolutely dreaded having to battle traffic in & out of the DC metro area.

With Lehman Brothers, it was the size of the town itself…14,731 residents!

Oh, I forgot, another ~7200 people in neighboring Gering!

With Fannie Mae, I’d be working on the same general organization as my former Citi boss, John Gang (‘83-‘86), who I absolutely adored, both personally & professionally. I remember calling John about any job openings (after falling out of touch with him for 10+ yrs) and by the end of that week, I was on a plane to Washington, DC for an interview.

He was, undoubtedly, one of the very sharpest & nicest guys I’ve ever met, much less, had the distinct pleasure to work for.

(And I’ll never hold the fact that he would always bring in a large crock pot of cocktail franks with a ketchup-and-grape-jelly sauce for pot luck lunches against him!

Actually, that concoction was surprisingly good!)

I racked my brain trying to decide between these two options.

In the end, my disgust for an eventual terrible commute eliminated FNMA & made Lehman Brothers a winner by default.

If only I had a crystal ball & could’ve foreseen the Great Mortgage Crisis of 2008 that brought this country to its knees (as well as my 401K), things would’ve been different.

And as I would often tell my boss, Scott Deathrage, at Lehman, if it was “one of those smelly days in Scottsbluff” when I came for my interview, I never, ever would have accepted his offer!

It seems that Scottsbluff was surrounded by a number of cattle ranches & the smell emanating from the feed farms on certain days was unbearable. Combine that with the putrid smell coming the huge sugar beet processing plant in town, it was impossible to be outside for more than a little while on certain days!

In no way, shape or form am I exaggerating! At my favorite restaurant, The Emporium (which had to have fallen out of the sky & landed in Scottsbluff by total chance), I always loved eating out on my back patio. But NEVER on one of “those days”!

Once, when I opened my room door at the Hampton Inn & Suites (my “home” for the first 2 months I was there), I almost died from the stench…in the hallway! That stuff would burn the skin right off your face!

Anyway, while the change from a large city to a small town would certainly necessitate a major lifestyle adjustment, I figured “What the hey!”.

They had a few golf courses. I’m sure I could find myself a bowling league & perhaps, a weekly poker game, I thought.

But it definitely took a little getting used to.

Probably the most difficult part was the “This is how we’ve always done it here, Mike” attitude I would receive, especially from some peers & senior leaders.

Frustrating as hell!

(“Er, maybe that’s why our customer satisfaction results suck, heh?”)

They couldn’t understand why it was foolish (terrible customer service? ludicrous? plain stupid?) to use the Mountain Time zone on our customer statements & correspodence…

…especially when 99% of our customer portfolio lived in the other 3 time zones (Eastern, Central & Pacific)!!!

We would CONSTANTLY get besieged by poor customers in California who were attempting to make last-minute payments on-line (IVR, Internet or even with a rep) on the last day of the monthly grace period (right before we would start imposing late payment fees)…because “our” 7PM cut-off (Mountain Time) was actually “their” 6PM Pacific time.

It I couldn’t convince the “Service Committee” that what we were doing was wrong & that all companies would either “customize” what hours they communicated by time zone of the customer & if they couldn’t do that, would default to ET/Eastern Time if their customers were scattered across the country.

“No, Mike! No, Mike! No, Mike!”

So I went behind their their backs, sent an e-mail directly to the President of Lehman Brothers back in NY, then gloated when the order came down straight from corporate that everyone was to use ET on all customer communications…effective immediately.

“I told you guys so! Maybe, next time, you’ll be a little more receptive to others’ ideas. I’m tired of always hearing ‘But this is how we’ve always done it!’. Guess what? When I open the book of the ‘Most Admired Service Companies in America’, I don’t see our company listed anywhere!”

Had a similar battle when I tried to get this same Committee to adopt the use of Social Security Number as an acceptable means of entry into our IVR/Interactive Voice Response application (which front-ended all incoming Customer Service & Collections calls). They had been using Mortgage acct # as the ONLY way to get it…and IVR utilization hovered around 10%. (At Citi, it was in the mid-70s.)

Same stupid response from them.

I offered them everything I had in my pockets (~$150) as well as my wallet (including free reign of my ATM & credit cards…PIN codes included) if anyone on the committee (12+ people) could recite their own mortgage account #, without looking at anything.

Of course, no one could. “But you expect our customers to? You think they carry around their monthly statement with them or have the number tattooed somewhere?”

Again, no progress. So I joined (er, put myself on) the IVR Rewrite task force & got the change introduced that way!

Within no time, utilization tripled & continued to steadily rise!

Battled with my boss & my peers in his organization to scrap the 100-point methodology for monitoring phone calls & use the 1-5 scale that we had developed & successfully implemented at Citi.

When I FINALLY got my boss to agree that it was, indeed, a much better approach to providing feedback & coaching the people toward achieving better results (on 7/3/07), they wouldn’t implement it as our new system was already programmed to handle the old form. The totally-new system (Aspect ACD, IVR, Scheduling app, call recording, screen scraping, screen pops, etc) was besieged with problems and rollout was delayed until mid-December.

My boss got canned in February & it was futile trying to deal with anyone after that.

So that stuff was the most difficult part of my transition. (Faced similar nonsense when I joined another Midwest company, Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio…except that these guys were easily 25-30 years behind the times!)

Getting used to the actual “small town” atmosphere & stuff also took some time.

Overall, the people were pretty cool…with a few notable exceptions.

No, I’m not gonna provide any details on the latter, especially since the nice people greatly outnumbered the $?&!#% ones!

But Scottsbluff was pretty small. One Chinese restaurant (Wonderful House), one movie theater, one mall (~60% occupied), one Walmart (wow!), one hospital (though it was a Regional level 2 trauma center), one McDonals & Arby’s (no Burger King), many bars.

Regarding no BK…

I’d often drive 40 minutes to Torrington, Wyoming on Sunday evenings to go to Burger King there. Yeah, I like Whoppers, but…

I’d also find going to Walmart as a major source of socialization for me. As I’ve often told people, if I needed, say, 12 things, I’d only buy 8 or 9. In that way, I’d be forced to take another trip the following day!

There was no such thing as going to a concert or watching a professional sporting event in town. I’d often hafta drive to Denver (3 hr drive) where I’d watch the Rockies (baseball), Nuggets (basketball) & Avalanche (hockey) play.

But it always seemed I’d run into some bad luck with my plans there.

One time, Trisha’s Mom (Trisha is my ex-fiancé) passed away suddenly so I got stuck with tickets to the Red Rock Amphitheater to see Sublime.

Another time, I bought 3 seats (GREAT SEATS!) for a Bon Jovi concert at the Pepsi Arena for myself & 2 friends from Scottsbluff. I was already in Denver for a business review & they were gonna drive down to meet me.

But one of them fell ill & the other one hadda take her to the hospital. Lemme tell you, going to a concert by yourself is frustrating as can be!

I don’t know, but (to me) it seems that a guy kinda looks weird getting crazy by himself…and then pathetic if he doesn’t!

I saw George Carlin perform once in Denver (my all-time favorite comedian…and philosopher!) & he was absolutely terrible. I was shocked! So disappointed! His opening act was 100 times funnier.

He passed away about 6 weeks later.

I also went to Casper, WY for a couple of events (Elton John concert, a musical whose name now escapes me). Before moving to Nebraska, I didn’t even know what a Wyoming was, much less a Casper!


And I always thought that Scottsbluff was windy. And a strange wind, too.

Could it be that the wind is in your face on every one of 18 holes when you’re golfing?!? Well, at least it seemed that way!

But Wyoming took the cake for a windy place. Trisha & I would drive up to Gillette, WY as that’s where her Dad & brother lived.

Driving on US-85 was always an adventure as the high winds were incredible. I often felt my car being lifted up & miraculously moved a foot or do to the right or left.

If you’ve ever flown when the plane suddenly encounters a huge air pocket & instantly drops (& now you realize that you’re in an airplane & have this incredible fear of heights), that’s exactly what it feels like driving on this highway. And no matter how hard you squeeze that steering wheel…

There was this one time when we saw an 18-wheeler lying on its side, barely off the side of the road. It clearly was the victim of this sideways-blowing wind!

Yes, living in Scottsbluff was certainly an adventure. For all you non-geographically-inclined scholars, Scottsbluff is in the southwest corner of the state…with nothing around it.

The University of Nebraska (in Lincoln) is a good 6 hours away while Omaha (Warren Buffett, College World Series) is about 7.

It was an experience. I made a lot of good friends, though, whom I still love dearly to this day.

As always, thank you so much for listening!

Posted in:

Subscribe to Mike's Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Leave a Reply