As a “PhD at work,” several aspects of my graduate studies have come in useful in corporate life: a self-starter mentality, especially for research; lack of intimidation by vast amounts of reading or abstruse handwritten papers; ability to recognize when I’m listening to a different language (a lot of business-speak only sounds like standard spoken English); and the enjoyment of being around very smart people, whatever their area of specialization.
Several of these traits came in handy in one of today’s tasks. The CEO of our North American businesses has asked us to write histories of 15 cities in 9 states, and I want to get started laying the groundwork. As he says, Citi hasn’t been good at documenting its diachronic relationships with these places. And from my perspective as a historian, that’s a problem. Citi until recently did not systematically collect its historical records. In addition, the archives of two large acquisitions as well as 50 years’ worth of Citicorp’s photographs were in 7 World Trade Center when it was destroyed on 9/11. As a result, I am once again trying to try to find information in a distant colleague’s file drawers. I work on the six-degrees-of-separation theory of finding things at the company that we don’t already have in our archives. In this case, that means working out who the community relations officer in each state is; if he or she doesn’t have a relevant file, asking if they can point us to the unit packrat or longest serving employee. Sometimes just getting people to understand why we would want a piece of paper from the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s is part of the challenge. Citi has some 260K employees, with a dynamic online org chart (a static hardcopy chart would be out of date before it was published); learning to parse its finer points to locate the key informant is something of an art form. Fortunately, our office coordinator is a master at it and sends out inquiries to likely colleagues in a couple of states to get the process rolling.
Graduate studies also gave me some understanding of the social construction of community. That has been useful in our dealings with one of the company’s most important businesses, the one devoted to financing state and urban infrastructure projects, or municipal finance. A little background: until 1998, Citicorp was an organic growth company; that is, it mostly got bigger by increasing the amount of business that it did. After it merged with Travelers Group in 1998 and changed its name to Citigroup, it adopted Travelers’ growth by acquisition strategy. As a result, Citi now comprises well over a thousand legacy companies; many employees still feel a stronger loyalty to their legacy company than to the parent company. One of the fine lines that we have to walk is by providing histories and images that resonate with the employees’ ideas of who they are and where they work, but also to keep them aware of their place in Citi’s overarching narrative. Municipals is a case in point. Citicorp, whose municipal relationships went back nearly to 1812, closed its munis business in 1993. The division now comprises the municipal finance businesses of two legendary companies, Smith Barney and Salomon Brothers. They’ve recently had to do a major renovation in their space, to comply with regulators’ requirements that they create physical “Chinese” walls to separate their profit and nonprofit sides. The Center’s Fine Art unit has been called in to help decorate the rather blank space. The idea is to let clients and employees be surrounded by art and historical images that shows bridges, airports, railroads, tollways, tunnels, electrical utilities, and public housing projects, among others, in which the three businesses have played critical roles. The show mostly belongs to the art curator, who has chosen a canny mix of enlargements of compelling advertisements from the 1950s (mostly Citicorp) along with some archival photographs (Salomon and Smith Barney), plus strongly graphic photographs and architectural blueprints (“company neutral). My job is to throw in the occasional historical reference. The client also wants us to include information about their own building in one of the displays, so I’ve talked him out of his file on its 1970s opening day and talk him into being interviewed about what he remembers from that time.
You’ll see here some shots of their space: