Archives Help Businesses Learn from Mistakes The documents, products and records a company keeps in its archive help it to create institutional memories -- good and bad. Nike turns to shoes in its archives to be reminded of past successes and failures.
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Archives Help Businesses Learn from Mistakes

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Archives Help Businesses Learn from Mistakes

Archives Help Businesses Learn from Mistakes

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And now we're going to take a trip deep inside corporate America. We're not looking for records of secret deals or e-mails about excessive executive pay packages. We're delving into the stuff tucked away in corporate archives. Harriet Baskas has this installment of the Hidden Treasures Radio Project.


The "Texaco Star Theater" was a Tuesday night TV staple from 1948 to 1954.

(Soundbite of "Texaco Star Theater")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Our show tonight is powerful, we'll wow you with an hour full of power, drama, showers full of stars. We're the merry Texaco-men, tonight we may be showmen, tomorrow we'll be servicing your cars.

BASKAS: Each week four men in crisp matching gas station uniforms sang their jingle and introduced the show's star.

(Soundbite of "Texaco Star Theater")

Unidentified Group: And now, ladies and gentlemen, introducing America's number-one television star, Milton Berle!

BASKAS: Berle's show was one of the most popular on TV at the time and Texaco reaped the rewards. Over the years the company also linked its petroleum products to aviation daredevils, movie stars and even radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Unidentified Man: Texaco's Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, bringing the opera to millions of people who can't get to the opera.

Unidentified Singer: (Foreign language sung)

BASKAS: For years Texaco kept these clips and other corporate records in its archive in New York. But in 2001 Texaco merged with the Chevron Corporation in California, and the archives of both century-old companies were combined.

Mr. JOHN HARPER (Archivist): We're in the warehouse portion of the records center.

BASKAS: John Harper oversees the commingled archives, which is located eight miles from Chevron's headquarters in an unmarked building in a nondescript office park.

Mr. HARPER: Boxes are stacked in rows 35 feet high, almost to the ceiling. I would say it's probably three football fields long.

BASKAS: In among millions of photographs, documents and artifacts Harper found the contents of a corporate time capsule and a stash of service station giveaway items.

(Soundbite of Chevron film)

BASKAS: He also discovered a rare 1939 short film made for Chevron's predecessor, Standard Oil Company of California, by Walt Disney. The film features a parade of cartoon characters, including the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.

Mr. HARPER: Of course, the characters don't speak. There's just music going on and they roll out the red carpet and then the dwarfs, Minnie Mouse, Mickey Mouse all parade across the screen with the letters spelling out Standard.

BASKAS: The film touted a new marketing campaign. It was shown only to oil company staff and service station owners. Staff can still see it and it can still be useful, says Christina Fong, an assistant professor in the business school at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Professor CHRISTINA FONG (University of Washington): Companies that can really leverage from the information stored in their archives can do things like prevent past mistakes and use older ideas and those types of things, which can really help them to succeed in the marketplace.

BASKAS: That's how Nike designers say they used the 23,000 pieces of sports memorabilia at the company's Beaverton, Oregon, campus where Cindy Romaine is corporate archivist.

Ms. CINDY ROMAINE (Nike Archivist): It's kind of like why do we read the Constitution of the United States? Because if we can tap into what that thinking was, then we're a lot further in our current situation trying to figure out how to solve the problems that are going on today.

BASKAS: Comparing Nike's collection of running shoes and other stuff to the US Constitution is a bit of a stretch. Still, Cindy Romaine says Nike designers often visit the collection for inspiration. The boots Nike designed for the first "Batman" movie are here as is the extra-extra-large baseball uniform and jock strap the company created for John Candy to wear in the 1985 sports movie "Brewster's Millions." Today 143 pairs of shoes from the 1970s and '80s are laid out on 10 long folding tables. They were purchased recently from a collector in Japan to fill holes in the archives. The colors are almost blinding.

Ms. ROMAINE: Yeah, that's quite an eyeful to take in all at once.

BASKAS: Kenya red, Finland blue, fluorescent pink, often all in one shoe.

Mr. BOB SMITH (Nike Graphic Designer): Some of the color combinations are just wacky.

BASKAS: Nike senior graphic designer Bob Smith is one of those who visits the archive for ideas. He loves the garishly patchworked running shoes that date back to the days before Nike was a sports apparel powerhouse and just a scrappy young company trying to get noticed at the 1976 Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon.

Mr. SMITH: Someone we got the idea we only have five models but if we color each model up five different ways everybody will think we have, you know, 40 different models, right?

BASKAS: Actually that would be more like 25 different models, but there are other lessons to be learned from these shoes, and not just the successful ones. For example, the Nike Tailwind, the first running shoe with a cushioning air bag in the sole. It had metallic fibers in the fabric of the upper that caused the shoe to shred while it was being worn. And Cindy Romaine says there was the black patent leather shoe named, ironically, the Wet Flight(ph).

Ms. ROMAINE: Your foot was so hot in the shoe that you were as wet as if you'd walked through grass. I'm sure that they were designed with the right intentions at the time, but with the lens of history we can look back and say, `Wow, what were we thinking?'

BASKAS: These days the thinking is to collect at least one of every item Nike has produced. There are still about 50 models missing, so Cindy Romaine hopes folks will check their closet floors for old sneakers that might have stories to share with today's Nike designers.

For NPR News, I'm Harriet Baskas.

(Soundbite of music from vintage film)

BLOCK: To see Batman's boots and a list of shoes missing from the Nike archives, go to our Web site,

(Soundbite of music from vintage film)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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