Monday, May 22, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fish throwers' video flying high

Seattle Times staff reporter

It was at a weekly staff meeting that one of Pike Place Fish Co.'s fish throwers first suggested, "Let's become world famous."

That was 10 years ago. Since then, they've become the subject of a Levi's TV commercial directed by Spike Lee, the backdrop on "Frasier," "Good Morning America" and "Free Willy" - and the requisite tourist stop on everyone's Seattle itinerary.

Having accomplished that goal, they recently set a new one, slightly more ambitious: "world peace," says owner John Yokoyama - without a trace of irony as he sips coffee at Lowell's in the Market.

How do they plan to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony? Organizational motivation.

A corporate video about the fish throwers has become the best-selling training video in the country. They're so famous that Yokoyama and the company's business consultant, Jim Bergquist, are starting a venture called Pike Place Business Futures Consulting.

Like a flying fish, Yokoyama is soaring high. He's been bombarded with invitations to give corporate presentations. Some 3,000 organizations - including Nordstrom, Boeing,, Nokia, Harley-Davidson, Sprint, Saturn, Southwest Airlines and McDonald's - are already using the video "Fish!" and its sequel, "Fish Sticks!"

In 1998, ChartHouse International Learning put together a lighthearted, 17-minute corporate-training video called "Fish!" featuring the Market's fishmongers and a "Fish! philosophy," broken down into four easily digestible points: Play; be there; choose your attitude; and make their day.

With a $590 price tag, the video includes interviews with fish throwers, shots of fish throwers playing the crowd and fish flying through the air, set against a "Love Boat"-style soundtrack, "Sesame Street"-style fish graphics resembling Pepperidge Farm crackers wiggling around the screen and lots and lots of exclamation points!!!!!! Not your typically staged, poorly acted corporate-training video.

The video has inspired a rash of zany, what-will-they-think-of-next antics in several companies.

Lori Lockhart, Sprint's director of global-connection services (unofficially renamed "director of possibilities" post-"Fish!"), runs seven call centers in the country that employ about 1,000 people. Her call agents work directly with customers, each connecting 500 to 600 calls a day.

The industry is plagued with high turnover, and last year Lockhart set a goal of improving employee retention by 25 percent.

Lockhart came across the video when she attended a Ken Blanchard seminar (the original "One-Minute Manager") where he showed the video. She ordered "Fish!" for her offices. Since then, Sprint has installed TVs in all of the call centers so employees can watch soap operas while they're working to relieve boredom.

To lure workers to the Friday-night shift, the center in Kansas City, Kan., holds disco parties; the workers spin the disco ball that's been installed in the office, pump up the Village People and do the funky chicken together.

During the day, managers in-line skate around the office.

In Phoenix, managers arrive at work dressed as Elvis. Employees show up early for a game of Foosball or pool in the break room before their shifts. The new vision at Sprint global-connection services is "to become world famous," just like the fish market.

"The fish videos sparked it," Lockhart says. "When I saw it, I thought, `Hmm, they're onto something here. They like their jobs.' We had to do something about it. It's all about finding your fish to throw."

And her division's retention rate improved 27 percent.

At a bank in Arkansas, the staff strung fish poles through the lobby after watching the video. Instead of the fish market's "Caution: Low Flying Fish" aprons, they made aprons for the tellers that read "Caution: Bankers Having Fun."

The video has been incorporated into Northwest Airlines' annual training for ground services - more than 14,000 employees. Inspired, the company made its own Northwest Airlines "Fish!" documentary, profiling one baggage-handling team and how its members had fun at work.

"It's a movement," says Jon Christensen, president of corporate-video company ChartHouse International Learning in Burnsville, Minn., which produced the films.

While shooting another film in Seattle, he visited the Market and ended up watching the fish throwers. After two hours, he finally asked one of the fish throwers, "What's going on here?"

"His response was: `Did you have lunch today? Did the waiter or waitress connect with you? Did they say, `Have a nice day' when they gave you the check?' " Christensen recalls. "Then he looked at me and said, `This moment is yours and mine. What can I do to serve you?' And I instantly got it."

He went back to his hotel and stayed up until 2:30 drawing story boards.

The video now has been translated into six languages and has inspired a business-parable book called "Fish!"

It seems as if the Pike Place Fish culture was spontaneously generated by a team of mischievous workers. In reality, it was deliberately created.

In 1987, the fish market's wholesale business collapsed, so owner Yokoyama hired business consultant Jim Bergquist to help motivate the market and find a new vision.

The staff had meetings to discuss the company's vision and their personal goals. They still meet biweekly with ideas as big as becoming world famous and as personal as "I want to be a math teacher."

"Here are 20 guys that sit around every other Thursday and talk about their dreams and possibilities. We're talking about a fish market," says Christensen.

Bergquist tosses out self-help phrases when he talks about the Pike Place Fish culture: "There's a specific technology behind it. We call it transformational. It's based on the idea that all human beings are fundamentally creative. When you work with people, nurture and support them to empower each other, they make quantum leaps in productivity."

Now Pike Place Fish is getting several calls and e-mails a week requesting appearances.

The first time a company called him, Yokoyama thought, "Are they crazy? What are we going to do?"

Then the offers rolled in one after another.

"It's become a forest fire," says Yokoyama. In January, they threw fish around Alaska Airlines' annual leadership conference.

A group of trainers from Marriott came to Seattle and invited fish throwers to have dinner with them. People ask for their autographs.

Bergquist and Yokoyama have formed the Pike Place Business Futures Consulting team to formalize their corporate coaching. An out-of-town appearance commands $10,000; small company seminars cost from $2,000 to $3,000, about standard for the industry. In October, they're holding a two-day seminar, with tuition at $1,000 a person.

"There's a change going on in the business world," says Yokoyama. "There's so little unemployment right now, it's hard to keep employees. Here's a way to keep them happy. And when they're happy, they produce."

As for world peace?

"If we can get this throughout the world - people communicating and working together like we do at work - this would support world peace," Yokoyama says. "It will re-create the relationship of love."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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