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The Henry Ford of the computer industry looks after his employees

Ken Olsen does not act like the head of a multibillion-dollar company. While many of his counterparts take limousines or even helicopters to work, Mr. Olsen prefers a Ford Escort van. (He's a director at Ford.) A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he apparently has not gotten the engineer out of his system. His idea of a good time, the rumor mill has it, is to drop in on the engineers at Digital facilities in California and see what's cooking.

Twenty-eight years ago, DEC consisted of three people and $70,000 in venture capital. Today, it has 90,000 employees and $6.7 billion in sales.

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That kind of growth has spurred Adolf (Sonny) Monosson, author of the newsletter ``Monosson on DEC,'' to observe: ``The only other case that I know of someone who has grown a company to such a size in one lifetime, all by himself, is Henry Ford.''

Each year Digital gives every employee in the United States a turkey (regular or kosher) for Christmas dinner. This year it's giving away 45,000 of them. (About a quarter of the employees in smaller plants get a children's party or a voucher instead.) DEC will also distribute turkeys to charity if employees request it, which many do.

Perhaps better than turkeys, in the employees' view, is Digital's no-layoff tradition. While other computer companies have dismissed thousands of workers during the computer slump, Digital has slightly expanded its ranks. It has eliminated about 3,000 manufacturing jobs and plans to close down 2,000 more. But most of those people have been shifted to other areas of the company or have left through attrition.

The investment community has looked askance at the no-layoff tradition.

``We are very severely criticized during a recession for not having layoffs,'' Olsen says. ``But if we have faith in the future we will need the people, even if we don't fully use them during recession. So it makes good business sense. . . . But besides that, layoffs can be kind of a dehumanizing thing.''

He has made other unpopular moves, as when he reorganized the company in early 1983 from 18 product line units -- little fiefdoms for ambitious managers -- into three groups. About a dozen of the company's most talented engineers and managers left.

But, says one employee, ``if there's anything that has allowed this company to weather the slump, it was that reorganization. Ken didn't make a popular decision at the time, but he was right. Now we know why he's the boss.''

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