A good sign for Harry & David

The recent years in the Harry & David story have played out like a bad dream for the company's employees and the community, who have seen the century-old mail order company as an economic constant. In good times and bad, Harry & David produced fruit and gift baskets that sold around the globe. Sure, there were ups and downs, but the company continued to employ thousands locally.

Although few recognized it at the time, that certainty began to slip away in 2004, when a New York-based private equity firm, Wasserstein & Co., took control of the Medford company. Seven years later, Harry & David has seen its sales take a beating, the company go through bankruptcy and current and former employees' retirement plans be shifted to a federal bailout agency.

There are glimmers of hope, including one delivered this past week with the announcement that Craig Johnson, a local resident and former CEO of the successful Musician's Friend, would be taking over the reins of the Rogue Valley's best-known business.

There certainly are no guarantees that Johnson will fix all that ails Harry & David, but his appointment helps lessen the sense that the company was in the hands of people with no particular stake in it, beyond making money as fast as possible.

That sense was exacerbated when Wasserstein sacked longtime Harry & David CEO Bill Williams and replaced him with Steven Heyer, former CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and president and chief operating officer of The Coca-Cola Co. and Turner Broadcasting System.

Heyer, who came in a year before bankruptcy was declared, did little to connect with the community. His family remained in Atlanta and he commuted between the two coasts. He was openly dismissive of his predecessors at the company, many of whom had deep roots in the community.

Heyer was paid $500,000 a year and given a potentially lucrative stock option. In February of this year, he was replaced as CEO by Kay Hong, a turnaround specialist who was paid $26,000 a week as she crafted a plan to pull the company out of bankruptcy.

That seemed a fit with Wasserstein, which earned the community's enmity by loading the company with debt that contributed to its downfall and then cashing in on that debt to make a tidy profit. Meanwhile, locally, people were laid off, employees' pensions jettisoned and the community left to wonder if the company would survive.

The appointment of Johnson as CEO should not elevate Wasserstein on anyone's moral compass. The company's actions represent the kind of me-first corporate greed that has helped push this country into the greatest economic downturn it has seen in 70 years. Wasserstein represents everything wrong with Wall Street and could serve as a poster child for the excesses that led to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But Johnson lives here, his kids go to school here, he has connections in the community beyond the financial reports that fly between the two coasts as his predecessor once did.

He also brings a background of working for a company that successfully made the transition from mail order to online, experience that should serve him and the company well as Harry & David looks to find its footing in a financial landscape that has changed dramatically in the past decade.

While we can all hope Johnson will be a miracle worker, that's a lot to expect. But his appointment does give us the realistic hope that Harry & David is once again being managed by someone who cares not only about the company's bottom lime but also about its employees and the community where it's based.

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