1983, A Pivotal Year for NPL

The early 80s found NPL struggling through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Though times were difficult, the struggle created an environment for exploring new opportunities. One of these was taking work in new markets in the Southwest (see post from March 1). The times also sparked a total re-examination of NPL as a company. Having lost its three biggest contracts, NPL was surviving on bid work. It was imperative that the company make itself more attractive to customers. The answer started with going back to one of NPL’s core values–taking care of customers.

In the words of founder Noel Coon, “It was lean times, but we were hungry. I got more serious about the company and ready to put my learning into action.” In 1976, Coon had been selected to join the Young President’s Organization (YPO), a global community of company presidents dedicated to becoming better leaders. As part of that organization, Coon participated in an exchange of ideas between leaders across a variety of industries and examined the practices of successful businesses in U.S. and beyond. Coon adopted ideas for strategic planning that he learned from a course taught by a former chairman of Target Corporation. He traveled to Japan to visit a business school founded on W. Edwards Deming’s total quality movement. In 1983, NPL emerged from bankruptcy with a sharpened focus, marking a significant change in course for the company.

“We redefined everything we did to focus on continuous improvement,” Coon said. That “redefining” included everything from how NPL perceived its customers to the color of NPL’s trucks. “Our real customers aren’t the utilities; they’re the rate-payers who live up and down the street. They don’t want to see big red trucks tearing up their yards and streets. They want that little blue flame to come out of their stoves like magic,” Coon said. NPL took action to better serve its customers’ customer by hiring customer service representatives increasing communication with rate payers, thereby adding a layer of service for its utility customers. At the same time, NPL adjusted its image in an effort to make the company more attractive. This meant reducing its profile. Large red trucks were down-sized when possible and painted white.




It was also during this time period that the Northern Pipeline name was abbreviated to NPL and a new logo was adopted. In addition to alignment with other downsizing efforts, dropping “Northern” from the name made sense for seeking work in other regions of the country. (The official change from Northern Pipeline to NPL wouldn’t happen until almost 25 years later in mid-2000s.)