The Rise and Fall of Umberslade Hall

The cohesiveness and efficiency of an organization quickly deteriorates when positive leadership examples are lacking.

At 6 p.m., Friday, July 27, the Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) school board convened a public meeting. On the agenda was the "Approval of a Property Lease Agreement with Legacy Partners I Alameda, LLC (a Delaware Limited Liability Company) for 26,720 square feet of space in a building located at 2060 Challenger Drive, in the Marina Village."

The lease will run at an estimated annual cost of $552,000 for six years. At the end of the lease, AUSD has the option to purchase the building outright. Oh yes, there is a $100,000 security deposit due upon signing the lease.

If all goes according to plan, the AUSD administrative offices — some 80 employees — will be in brand-new, custom-built offices at this new location in early October. The stated reason for this move is the imminent hazard of Historic Alameda High School's east wing's total collapse in a large earthquake centered on the Hayward Fault. AUSD administration has stated that they have looked at all options in deciding where to relocate the existing administrative offices. They deemed the location described in the lease agreement as the "most fiscally neutral" over time. Alternative locations, if evaluated, have not been publicly disclosed.

In their meeting, the school board approved the lease agreement with a three-to-two vote. It cements AUSD's commitment to rent a large amount of space off existing school property for an extended amount of time. It also assures the abandonment of all but the center portion of Historic Alameda High School for the foreseeable future.

A significant amount of limited existing funds will, of necessity, now be committed to this move. Perhaps most disturbing, however, is the management decision for an extended relocation of the school district administrative staff to an outlying region, distant from the daily hustle and bustle of the district's campuses.

To illustrate this concern, I would like to relate the tale of the rise and fall of Umberslade Hall. At the end of World War II, Europe and Japan struggled to recover from the near total physical, societal and economic devastation wrought by war. Foreign exchange was key in resurrecting collapsed economic systems, in order to house and feed large populations on the verge of starvation. In dollar value, the three largest exports from England during those early years were cars, Scotch whisky and motorcycles.

At that time, the British motorcycle industry was by far the largest in the world. Triumph exported 60 percent of its annual production, and BSA exported 80 percent. Other British motorcycle firms had similar figures. By the 1960s however, the Japanese, unencumbered by undercapitalization, antiquated factories, draconian union work rules, and unreliable products, were beginning to surpass the British by producing machines having superior reliability, performance, styling and service support.

The British motorcycle industry imploded. Seeing foreign exchange and British jobs on the line, the British government guaranteed loans to the most viable companies that remained standing. In their own turnaround attempt, BSA-Triumph Group hired outside management, marketing and styling consultants.

To house them, they leased a vacant 17th-century Baronial manor in the English countryside named Umberslade Hall. Ensconced in Umberslade Hall, the new management team never had to cross paths with those denizens of the factories who might attempt to impart "a lesson of the past," or to cast doubts by saying, "That won't work, and here's why." Quickly, "Umberslade Hall" became publicly known as "Slumberglade Hall."

Commentary

Perhaps the most egregious byproduct of the time at "Slumberglade Hall" was a new common motorcycle frame design to be shared by the large capacity BSA and Triumph machines. It was put into production without delay. When large numbers of the new frame reached Triumph's Meriden Works, it was discovered on the assembly line that the Triumph engine wouldn't fit into the frame.

The new frame created a seat so high that only those over six feet tall could straddle it. People of normal stature struggled to keep the bike upright at a stop. Untold thousands were spent by the factories, and by dealers who received initial batches of these machines, to make them right. But the damage was done. The customers turned ugly, and departed for Japanese product showrooms.

Management's residence at Umberslade Hall was a scant four years, from 1968 to 1972, when the BSA-Triumph Group itself imploded. The consultants and attorneys all got paid, but the British taxpayer was on the hook for the loans gone bad. Factories were closed, throwing several thousand workers out of work. Hundreds of motorcycle dealers around the globe saw their businesses fail as well.

If anything is to be learned from the rise and fall of Umberslade Hall, it is that management needs to have direct contact with the workers. When others in a group observe a strong commitment which sets a positive example, they will willingly follow that example. If a sacrifice must be made, then all must make it. The cohesiveness and efficiency of an organization quickly deteriorates when positive leadership examples are lacking.

AUSD's commitment of already scarce funds on a long-term basis for new custom built administrative office space, located in the countryside, brings to mind the tale of the rise and fall of Umberslade Hall, and of the collateral damage it inflicted.

Dick Rutter is an Alameda resident.

 

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