It is not right to report events that occurred in a company after you have stopped working there, especially if the facts may be unfavorable to the company and even worse if you have held a position of trust with access to certain confidential information.
Sometimes, efficient, well-managed companies, in need of competing, embark on activities or projects that instead of helping, harm the business, instead of creating revenue and profit end up generating great losses.
The events that occurred became public through a Wall Street Journal article. The report described a Philip Morris project that when I read and became aware, working at the company at the time, I was totally surprised. Until then, I hadn’t heard of the project and of course didn’t participate on it.
Therefore, I don’t see any problem telling you here what happened. I will not repeat the newspaper report, I will tell you how I remember and in my own words, because it’s been a long time, I don’t have that newspaper anymore and I also couldn’t find the article in my internet searches.
Internally it was called project “Thunder”. But it became known as ” The Marlboro Train”, or even “The Marlboro Unlimited Train”, where everything would be allowed.
Advertising is the soul of many businesses, but in the cigarette business advertising is everything. The process of producing cigarettes if we think about it, it is simple, fully automated and all cigarettes use the same raw material. Tobacco leaves. So what differentiates one brand of cigarettes from another? The image. That’s why much of a cigarette company’s expenses go to marketing, promotion and sales.
Philip Morris has always had the best image of all companies, The Marlboro Man, that cowboy who galloped in the sunset colors and landscapes of the southwestern U.S.
At that time Philip Morris was being attacked on several fronts in the U.S., smokers suing the company for the harms that smoking caused, groups concerned with public health demanding the company, state governments and the federal government wanting the company to pay for treatment of tobacco-related diseases. The government body most feared by the company was the legislative branch. In 1970 congress banned cigarette advertising on television, in 1984 forced the tobacco industry to display anti-smoking advertising on cigarette packs, in 1997 law was passed banning advertising on billboards and public transportation. Also, at that time a campaign to prevent adolescents to smoke was initiated.
In the rest of the world the situation was different, some countries restricted advertising, but most still tolerated, in these the figure of the Marlboro Man was still alive, rampant and imposing. That’s why Philip Morris’ board, especially Philip Morris International, spent much more time reviewing a Marlboro commercial than the budget of various areas of the company.
Because of the immense profit that cigarettes brought, and also because of restrictions on advertising, the company did not know what to do with the mountain of money it had available for marketing activities.
Someone dreamed of an ultra-luxurious train of twenty double deck wagons, a cruise on wheels, with jacuzzi, massage rooms, casino, plus of course restaurants and other amenities, crossing the landscapes of the American Southwest, allowing passengers, when stopped at the stations, horseback riding, bicycle, motorcycle, flying hang gliding, balloon rides and many other activities that marketing staff could think of. It would be an unforgettable trip for the lucky smokers chosen by lottery, initially two thousands of them. They’d go to Marlboro Country, the mythical country of Marlboro smokers, hoarded from the U.S.
The company’s board, loved the idea and the Thunder project, was launched with the bang that its name indicated.
They defined what the train would look like, and in the process made it even more luxurious, and launched an international competition to build the train. The most advanced countries in train construction technology, Japan and France, declined to participate in the project. Japan probably because it couldn’t, it had several train building projects for the country itself. The alleged motive by France left Philip Morris’ staff astonily, not believing in the capacity of the French company.
They said the train, like that, would never run!
Who won the competition was a relatively small Colorado company, which signed a document promising not to bring to the public any details of the project, nor the contract with Philip Morris.
When the construction of the train began, the marketing staff, baptizing the project as a public relations campaign, began to prepare the marketing program and went ahead and drawn tickets for the first two thousand participants.
The enthusiasm was growing, the international area of Philip Morris, who had not participated in the project until then, decided that it would also draw 2,000 participants, for the next train trip, participated in the financing and made some additional demands on how the train should be configured.
The company that was building the train, because it was small, and due to the constant modifications in the specifications, was well behind schedule and went bankrupt!
The news reached the board of Philip Morris with a recommendation: Buy the Colorado train company and continue with the project. Looks like the board didn’t hesitate.
Philip Morris, a tobacco company, also became a train building company!
The project continued and preliminary tests proved what the French company had diagnosed. The train as designed wouldn’t be able to move.
Philip Morris killed the project. In addition to all the expenses, had to close the train company and pay the lucky smokers that had won the lottery. The only ones who ended up making money on the Marlboro Train.
It is not known exactly how much this project that never materialized cost to Philip Morris coffers. Sources outside the company, however estimate that counting all losses, was more than half a billion dollars!