As a person who majored in political science and has been engaged actively in public
Like many Pitney Bowes employees, alumni, and retirees, I was shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Ken Petersen, who passed away suddenly a few days ago at the age of 59. I knew Ken well and he was the kind of person to whom the most difficult people-related challenges could be given. If he were involved in a difficult human resources problem, I knew that we would be giving it our best shot at success.
Ken worked at Pitney Bowes for 34 years and was an example of the kind of human resources leader that made it possible for our company to make big changes uneventfully and to transition so many Pitney Bowes employees to good post-Pitney Bowes lives and careers. The company’s reputation not only did not suffer from reducing its manufacturing workforce, but it grew because of the care we took to help our employees manage through their challenges in confronting career and life transitions.
So much of what dominates our news today are stories about Americans who have lost their jobs and have gone into downward spirals in their lives. Many of them become substance abuse victims because of their attempts to deal with physical and emotional pain. These Americans understandably became consumed with fear, anxiety and stress and have other chronic diseases as well.
In 1989, my predecessor George Harvey made the decision that we would not close down our Stamford factory at that time, but would upgrade the skills of our employees, initially on company time, and using company funds. We would reduce our workforce a little bit at a time. We stayed in that factory for 15 years before closing it in 2004.
In 1989, we had many factory employees who were poorly educated, not fluent in English (I was told that someone walking through the factory might hear 22 different languages spoken in ordinary conversation), and not accustomed to working in teams and communicating with fellow employees. We had a high-performing assembly operation. However, to stay in place in Stamford, we would need to change how work was done, and upgrade our employees’ skills.
Many of these employees were afraid of doing classroom work. Some may have had undiagnosed learning disabilities. Others may have experienced unpleasant classroom environments in the communities or countries from which they came. We had not only a challenge in delivering the classroom learning, but also a challenge in persuading frightened, or even resistant, employees to undertake the task of upgrading themselves.
Ken Petersen was vital to the success of that program. He was reassuring, trustworthy, empathetic, and disciplined in addressing every challenge that this kind of massive effort entailed. He was great at defusing conflict and keeping people on the front lines focused on the end goal.
We succeeded in doing something that occurs all too infrequently in America today: transitioning a workforce and a community from old-line manufacturing into alternative productive and fulfilling careers and lives.
A few days ago, as my wife and I were sitting in a diner having lunch, a Pitney Bowes alumna approached me and thanked me for the constructive transition that enabled her to secure a job in healthcare after leaving Pitney Bowes. One manufacturing worker, who emigrated from Italy, thanked me some years ago for giving him the self-confidence and skills to open and operate a landscaping business. Over the years, many men and women have shared these kinds of stories with me, many of which have occurred far away from Fairfield County.
However, I never fail to mention that what made their better post-Pitney Bowes lives possible was the thoughtful and diligent work of many people. Many of these individuals, in varying degrees, owe a debt of gratitude to Ken Petersen, because he was a vital part of that effort.
In the Fall of 2017, I wrote a blog on how we assess each of our legacies. One point I made in that blog is that the ripple effect of the good work we do is often unable to be assessed in full by ourselves or even those close to us. Someone whose life we might have turned around has never been able to find us at a much later time and tell us how much of a difference something we did made in their lives. Those positive impacts keep growing quietly in the lives of others
Given the number of lives he touched and bettered in his 34 years at Pitney Bowes, Ken Petersen undoubtedly has a far greater positive legacy than any of us, including his family, can begin to know.
We grieve for his passing and for the loss his family and friends are experiencing, but we also know that his positive legacy will remain and continue to grow!