business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

It hard to imagine any level at which a discussion of Victoria’s Secret underwear and the Affordable Care Act offer similar insights. That is, until something happens that ties creative ideas on the two topics together.

The result is a pair of lessons in the power of examining a problem from a new angle.

Let’s start with the simple problem and the underwear. I’ve got a good friend, who is both a leading light in the food industry and a really sharp dresser. Recently, I asked him how he manages to pair pocket square so well with whatever shirt he is wearing.

The answer is the reason I cannot give you his name and a very good reason not to ask too much about pocket squares any more. A few years back my friend discovered that he, like me, was unable to correctly fold a pocket square to provide the little color accent sticking out of his jacket. Somehow he learned that Victoria’s Secret seamless silk panties are the perfect solution. No matter how they are folded or stuffed into his jacket pocket, they always create the perfect look. And the choice in colors is staggering.

The added benefit, he says, is walking into a Victoria’s Secret store in a blazer to look for colors and practice. The salespeople simply cannot believe what’s going on.

But here’s the thing. My friend ends up with an easy solution to a problem by simply approaching it in an unexpected way. It’s the essence of creativity, innovation and a really, really good inside joke.

In contrast, there’s little to joke about when it comes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare. Ever since it was proposed four years back it has been a lightning rod in politics, an incredibly divisive issue and, for many businesses, a headache for both known and unknown reasons.

Yet for a second let’s try to look beyond the politics and examine the issue from another point of view: that is, how to best cope with the law in hopes of containing costs, improving employee performance and gaining competitive advantage.

At least, that’s how Dennis Lindsay, the CFO of Nugget Markets is looking at it. At the recent National Grocers Association (NGA) convention, Lindsay talked briefly about ACA during a panel on industry financial issues. His offbeat take on the issue led me to ask him to further explain his position.

Lindsay’s rationale is 180 degrees opposite from what is usually discussed. Rather than talk about cutting hours to get associates under the required coverage in the law, Lindsay suggests retailers need move in the other direction and convert more part-time jobs to full-time.

From a pure financial standpoint, he explains that health care costs are fixed per worker. So the more hours an associate works, the smaller the benefit costs as a percent of their compensation. By converting two part-time jobs to one full-time job, a company reduces the number of people who must be covered.

In addition, there are benefits to more full-time staffers. “Hopefully (they are) better trained, more skilled, more satisfied, making guests happier and selling more groceries,” he says. Better employees lead to a better customer experience, which in turn can produce competitive advantage.

Nugget’s example may not be perfect for you. It’s a nine-store company frequently ranked by Fortune as one of the 100 best companies to work for, which makes anything they do enviable. Nugget is also based in California, where local employment laws require an extra level of innovation.

Challenges, as we know, up the premium for innovative solutions because necessity is still the mother of invention.

And that’s why Lindsay’s comments intrigued me, especially because they come on an issue that seems to draw nothing but immediate and angry responses. Nugget looked beyond politics (and I have no idea what Lindsay’s or the company’s politics are) to find a solution that could be both cost-effective and produce better customer service.

It just like how my friend looked to a lingerie store to find a solution to a wardrobe issue. Thinking out of the box can take you all kinds of places.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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