Illustration by Kirk McConnell
From her vantage point working in a global logistics firm, Linda Lewellen has had a unique view of trading around the world. She also has a unique approach to life that she developed in the cauldron of economic uncertainty that has plagued America since the l990’s.
On her 35 mile morning commute to Orange County, Lewellen would pass Angel Stadium in Anaheim where more than 700 people camped. She muses on the large number of homeless people in the community, “I saw it developing…every day there were more and more people there.”
And the image stays with her. “Even when we go downtown [to L.A.], there were camps. And even here, like in Ontario.”
Her eyes soften and her voice drops, “It was sad, but I thought, at least they have tents.”
She has had a taste of bad times early in the unraveling of the American economy, when in 2006 she was laid off and then spent the next year and a half looking for another job.
“Life’s not fair,” she asserts as she reflects on the past twelve years.
She is a recession survivor.
Lewellen now lives in an eastern LA county suburb sharing a house with her two dogs, her veterinarian daughter, her daughter’s cat, dog and snakes. A sociable strawberry blond who keeps busy with a job that requires a 74 mile commute every day, she also hikes, fishes, keeps up with her friends, occasionally dates and on most weekends, drives to San Diego for duties as the executor of her parent’s estate.
In 2006, the Great Recession was two years in the future but the American economy had been plagued with financial problems…the dot-com bubble of the l990’s finally burst into a recession in the early 2000’s. Meanwhile, the deregulation of the banking industry and the rise in housing prices ushered in changes in the mortgage finance sector. It eventually led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the crash when the American economy froze in 2008.
In 2006, Lewellen was working as a project manager for Retail Store Systems, an IBM subsidiary that created and shipped computerized retail hardware (cash register systems) to companies around the world. Her job was to get the computers ready and then ship them worldwide to global retailers, such as the Disney Store, California Pizza Kitchen, Sears, Broadway and Bullocks. It was a logistics specialty needed when American firms opened businesses abroad.
But by the mid 2000’s, the company transitioned from sales and installation of cash register systems to maintenance. There was little growth and in 2006, Retail Store Systems laid off half its employees, an IT staff with highly trained technical abilities. Most have landed on their feet, Lewellen says.
And so did she.
In the next one and a half years Lewellen made job-hunting her new career. She would get up, get a bite of breakfast, shower and then sit at her desk.
“For the next eight hours, I was looking for a job. It was the beginning of everything being online, so it was a new experience for everyone. I started looking for ‘key words’ in the newspaper want ads. I never did that before.”
As part of her campaign, she looked for industry publications and signed up for online magazines that could keep her abreast of developments in global integrated logistics, shipping, transport. She aimed to become well informed about the field. She was not seeking to top her salary at Retail Stores; she was mainly interested in covering her expenses, which included rent.
It was not an easy year and a half. Sometimes a month would go by without an interview. And when she finally got a job offer, she turned it down. She would have been required to commute to Orange county from her home in LA county and punch in every morning. At the time, she was helping raise an 11 year old stepson, whose Dad left at 4:30 in the morning to work in construction. Lewellen felt she had to be home to be sure Matthew got off to school on time. She was also helping her aging parents who lived in San Diego, so flexibility was important. And it was important to her that she find a job where her knowledge and expertise could be put to good use, not just any job with a paycheck. Her family didn’t understand why she didn’t leap to grab the offer.
“My daughter just freaked out telling me ‘it’s the only job offer you had.’ But I couldn’t do it…I hadn’t been an hourly worker since l979, and I never did have job where I had to punch a time clock.” She admits it was a risk that scared her.
She finally got the offer she hoped for in global logistics with a Kuwaiti company that had begun as Public Warehousing Services. It grew into a global provider of transportation services. In 2006, the company unified its operations under the name Agility. And in 2008, Lewellen was hired.
“It just kind of hit with what I had done before,” she says. “Global transport and shipping was a niche, a small niche.” But it was what she did when she worked at Retail Systems.
She has been with Agility for 10 years.
It was a tough adjustment.
From her vantage point in the area of logistics, she saw the rise and fall of the economy. Just as she started at Agility, the country went into credit crisis (the financial crunch) and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the l930’s. It was harder and harder to move products around the world when the financial collapse froze the credit needed for normal business. And the closing of the big box stores, such Mervyn’s and Circuit City, also hurt.
In addition, Agility had helped to supply the American military during the Afghanistan war and was being sued by the Department of Defense for overcharging. The mood at the company was “weird.”
A month and a half into her new job, Lewellen learned that her boss was considering firing her. She doubled down on her duties, which included becoming informed about and supporting the other members of the sales group this boss managed. “I made sure I was indispensable to them. I had to learn what each one of them did and what I could do to help them.” Lewellen survived and a year later, the boss left the company.
The changes in the economy were not all bad. Because of the collapse of the housing market, she has been able to buy the house she had been renting and she has survived a bout with cancer. Her parents have since passed away, but Lewellen still drives down to San Diego to settle their estate.
Although the economy slowly righted, the shadow of bad times lurks. She continues to read logistics and manufacturing journals as the political climate changes and uncertainty again rears its ugly head.
“2016 was a dividing line,” she declares.
There are new tariffs and trade wars instigated by the Trump Administration. “Now everyone wonders what will happen next in the economy,” she says, “Where are we going, how is it going to impact us?” Shipping goods and products from place to place, from country to country has never been a cash transaction. Companies rely on letters of credit and very short term loans for as little as a day to be able to get things shipped on time. The Trump Administration tariffs would levy additional costs (tariffs are taxes) to the producers of goods every time things enter or leave a port. The shipping firms would have to find a way to finance these additional steps in the process.
“It’s going to be a nightmare. How are we doing to move things, how are we going to make things? Who pays for it? Somebody has to pay the bill.” The memory of the financial collapse and the credit freeze once again looms.
She sighs then collects her thoughts.
“Life’s not fair,” she repeats. “But you just have to do the best you can with it.”
She has gained strength from her experience, strength that she applies in daily life. She has learned to ignore petty viewpoints and to focus on important goals. She will listen but not indulge other people’s complaints. “Do not let emotional vampires into your life,” she warns. “Don’t be afraid to say no because you have enough to deal with.”
She is a recession survivor who advises “Make it your job to find a job.”
“That’s the only way you’ll find what you really want.”
Part II of Recession Survivors coming Monday, November 19.