Monday, February 5, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, February 5, 2001

All work and a lot of play for Seattle fishmongers

Associated Press

SEATTLE — To put it simply, their job stinks.

The fishmongers at Pike Place Fish Co. spend much of their day tossing salmon, monkfish and crab across the counter at one other. The head of a corporate training video company is convinced that employees of other companies can learn a lot from them.

John Christensen, CEO of ChartHouse International Learning Corp. in Burnsville, Minn., made the "Fish!" training videos based on the passion the fish-flingers have for their work and how that translates to the bottom line: increased productivity, higher quality and happier employees.

What’s their secret?

"We’re committed to having fun. If you’re not committed to that, you’re fired," joked Dick Yokoyama, manager of Pike Place Fish Co.

Other corporations are buying into the concept that work and play don’t have to exist in separate worlds. Nordstrom Inc., the Boeing Co., Sprint Corp. and McDonald’s Corp. all have used the Fish videos, and employees at Pike Place Fish Co. have been guest speakers at firms ranging from software makers and research companies to airlines.

Still, it is admittedly odd in today’s status-conscious society to imagine that fish throwers clad in galoshes and bright orange rubber pants can inspire the suit-and-tie crowd.

"We’re typical guys," said Anders Miller, 24, who has been throwing fish for seven months. "When did we become motivational speakers? I don’t even do my laundry."

Mesmerizing passion

Christensen discovered Pike Place Fish Co. during a 1997 visit to Seattle. He saw the fishmongers full of energy and joking with a cheering, laughing crowd. They attacked children with crawfish, handed out samples of crab legs and showed off their tossing skills with products needing to be weighed and wrapped.

But it was their consistently good spirits that caught Christensen off guard. "The passion and the wholeheartedness — I was mesmerized."

As he left, he started thinking. Could he create this environment at his own company and for businesses around the world? Christensen spent most of the next year creating the video of the fishmongers and their advice on how to create a good workplace attitude.

It centers on four simple concepts: choose your attitude, play, make their day and be there.

"It’s hitting people and striking them in a new way, shedding a new light on wisdom we know," Christensen said. "We’re just packaging them in a way people can digest them."

The fishmongers admit the four steps aren’t necessarily easy.

"We do more than that," Yokoyama said. "It’s a hard job, hard work."

The video has generated sequels: "Fish! Sticks" and "Fish! Tales." The latter features a series of company representatives who explain how Fish changed their business.

After Sprint managers watched the Fish video, the company installed televisions in its call centers and put a pool table in the break room. A manager started dressing up like Elvis on occasion. Silly as it might sound, the company’s employee retention rate has climbed.

The videos’ success also has spawned a book, workshops, an apparel line and Pete the Perch — a small, brightly colored stuffed fish.

"We packaged this stuff in lightheartedness," Christensen said. "We wanted to break the doldrumness of corporate America. The minute you get it, it’s fun."

More work but more fun

Vacation Planning Center in Fort Myers, Fla., kicked off a Fish week that included viewing the video, a silent parade, Fish shirts and a pond where employees could fish out prizes.

Training manager Linda Brooks admitted it created more work and planning for her, but she said employee turnover has gone down since the department started implementing fun activities

"It’s fun to see the results," she said. "They know I’m going to get them and surprise them in some way, and they are going to benefit from it."

At a librarian’s recommendation, Charlotte Lindstrom showed the Fish video to her English as a Second Language class at Bellingham Technical College in Washington. It was enlightening to the students, most of whom are manual laborers, she said.

"They need to see all types of atmospheres and see work can be fun," Lindstrom said. "They don’t always associate work with enjoyment. It gives them another perspective."

For its part, Pike Place Fish has created Flying Fish/bizFutures Consulting Team. For $20,000, the fishmongers — complete with a few fish to throw — put on programs to encourage employees to have fun, said Jim Bergquist, a consultant for the firm.

The fishmongers are surprised they are having such an impact.

"I’m just a normal person," said Dan Bugge, who makes an appearance in the second Fish video.

"It’s humbling to have people come and tell us we have changed their lives."

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