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Bicyclist Roams U.S. to Write a Book on Corporate Trivia

February 04, 1988|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | Times Staff Writer

In his line of work, Paul Wolsfeld discovers unusual tidbits about corporations that don't normally make the annual report.

Forget gross margin or depreciation. Wolsfeld can tell you that Best Products, the catalogue showroom chain from Richmond, Va., features a crystal ball in its corporate board room. That super-retailer Sam Walton's office at Wal-Mart Stores headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., has a view of the parking lot. And that employee business cards at Owens-Corning Fiberglas are exactly that--fiberglass.

Wolsfeld's passion is corporate trivia and his information-gathering technique is as offbeat as the information he gathers. The gregarious 35-year-old is traveling the country by bicycle, visiting the 500 largest publicly held companies and the 100 largest privately held firms to amass enough facts to write a book "geared toward presenting corporate America in a positive light."

"I'm combining two things I enjoy, bicycle touring and business research," said La Jolla resident Wolsfeld, who runs a clipping service called Preppie Gadfly Services, among other small ventures.

Wolsfeld first packed his backpack and saddlebags with a clipboard, tape recorder and a collection of T-shirts and shorts two years ago. He's been to more than 400 companies, losing track of the mileage he has pedaled along the way, and expects to complete his research by the end of summer.

Wolsfeld's technique is simple. Before he visits a city, he sends post cards explaining his mission to the chief executives of the companies he plans to hit. He makes appointments only under extreme duress. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but that, too, is an element of Wolsfeld's research.

"I like kind of sneaking up on companies," he said. "Part of my book deals with how flexible companies are. . . . Some companies roll out the red carpet for me and some people could care less about me."

Wolsfeld works from a questionnaire that takes 10 to 15 minutes to fill out and covers such weighty matters as the height of the corporate headquarters, the size of the parking lot and the number of company airplanes. Wolsfeld also is visiting every state capital and a number of universities, is conducting research on corporate travel, is ranking the cities he stops at, is listing his favorite corporate smells and is keeping a diary of his experiences.

Wolsfeld said he was surprised that he has received the warmest receptions at privately held companies, often thought of as secretive. And certain publicly held companies, particularly some that make consumer products, have been less than friendly.

Taken for a Nut

At Mack Trucks of Allentown, Pa., "the receptionist's sole job is to make people feel at home when they come in," Wolsfeld said. At the Limited, the Columbus, Ohio,-based specialty apparel retailer, Wolsfeld said he was threatened with arrest.

"I thought he was a nut," said the public relations representative for a large private firm that turned Wolsfeld away. "He came on a bad day. Our company is very flexible--we're known as risk takers--but I'm not."

When he went to the Pacific Telesis headquarters in San Francisco, Wolsfeld had to use a pay phone to reach his contact. "They kept transferring me, and every time they transferred me, they would lose me, and it cost me a quarter each time," he said. But once he got through, the visit went smoothly, Wolsfeld said.

During his recent trip to Los Angeles, Wolsfeld's no-appointment approach was sorely tested.

"I'm having a lot of problems seeing people," Wolsfeld said. "What's happening in Los Angeles is they're saying, 'We can't see you; can you come back?' "

Impression of Pinola

Wolsfeld admits to being a groupie of chief executives. He was impressed when a request for corporate sponsorship drew a personal reply--a polite "no"--from Wickes Chairman Sanford C. Sigoloff. On his tour of First Interstate Bancorp., Wolsfeld was introduced to Chief Executive Joseph J. Pinola. "He seemed like a nice man," Wolsfeld said.

Wolsfeld, who has gone into debt to finance his trek, said his biggest expense is lodging. But many hotels have been putting him up free as part of his corporate travel research.

The publicity Wolsfeld has received along the way has brought some inquiries from publishers, and he is developing a proposal to peddle when he finishes the research.

"I've collected tons of trivia," Wolsfeld said. "To me, information is power. I like knowing things that nobody else knows."

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