ChartHouse International Learning Corporation
ChartHouse International Learning Corporation
Incorporated: 1955 as Ray Christensen and Associates
Sales: $10 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 512110 Motion Picture and Video Production; 512120 Motion Picture and Video Distribution
ChartHouse International Learning Corporation’s series of Fish! business training films and books have become well-known in corporate America, inspiring companies to transform their work atmosphere and revitalize customer service by applying the fun-loving Fish! Philosophy. ChartHouse Learning prefers to call its products educational films, since the principles embodied in aphorisms such as “Choose Your Attitude” and “Be There” can be applied in almost any life situation. From its headquarters in Burnsville, Minnesota, the company distributes the Fish! films in close to 20 different languages to more than 50,000 customers worldwide. Fans of Fish! can also buy a related book, while “Idea Agents” at company headquarters act as consultants who help adapt the philosophy to an individual company’s needs. The success of the Fish! series was preceded by nearly 50 years of filmmaking experience at ChartHouse. Company founder Ray Christensen made many documentary films and a highly regarded safety film. The company is also credited with introducing the business world to the concept of paradigms through a series of business films that came out in the 1980s. John Christensen has since taken over the firm from his father, acting as chief executive officer, or, as ChartHouse Learning styles it, “Playground Director.”
Safety Films and Business Paradigms: 1955–96
Ray Christensen began making films in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1955. His one-man freelance firm, Ray Christensen and Associates, started out filming television commercials. But soon Christensen was drawn to making documentary films, and he traveled widely in pursuit of a range of projects. His work documented the efforts of an African tribe trying to preserve water resources and a group of developmentally challenged people in Nebraska working to fulfill their individual potential. According to ChartHouse, Christensen’s films “had a way of inspiring people to see the usual in unexpected and unusual ways.”
In 1968 Christensen moved his operation to Minneapolis, hoping to find more opportunity in the Twin Cities area. He pitched his services door-to-door in search of a business that wanted to make a documentary about itself. In the early 1970s the young firm took on the name Filmedia Inc. Shortly thereafter Filmedia was hired to film a safety documentary for Federated Insurance, a business insurance company. Christensen threw his energies into learning about the subject, attending safety seminars and memorizing statistics on workplace injuries. A friend and past client, football commentator Pat Summerall, hosted the film. When it came out in 1977, the film set a new tone for safety training by emphasizing overall attitude as a crucial injury prevention technique. The film was endorsed by the head of the Minnesota Safety Council and became a bestseller. Christensen eventually made four films as part of the series. Federated Insurance requested a distribution deal, but Christensen declined at first. He acquiesced to a second offer, and Filmedia branched out into the distribution sector of the film industry.
Other projects from Filmedia’s early years included documentaries for the Lutheran Church, the Catholic Church, and World Missions. But the firm’s next big breakthrough came from a dinner party introduction that brought Christensen together with Joel Barker, a “futurist” with a knack for bringing innovative thinking to the business world. Barker was working as a consultant for Northern States Power at the time, and an NSP executive who happened to be a friend of Christensen’s decided the two should meet. Out of the ensuing partnership came The Business of Paradigms, a 35-minute film that appeared in 1982. The film developed the ideas of Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn examined how the greatest scientific discoveries usually came from those who broke with established thought. Barker and Christensen, on the other hand, looked at how the business world was hindered by an adherence to traditional rules and management patterns. By recognizing and changing the “paradigms” that dictated action in the business world, according to the film, managers would be more successful in thinking about the future. The Japanese watch industry, for example, was one of the “Galileos” of the business world: when the well-established Swiss watchmakers remained tied to spring-wound mechanisms, the Japanese conquered the market with quartz-movement watches. The Business of Paradigms became one of the best-selling business films of all time, and made the concept of paradigms familiar in corporate and pop culture. ChartHouse CEO John Christensen said he knew the term had entered common usage when it was used by UPS in a commercial in the mid-1980s.
Later that decade Filmedia changed its name to ChartHouse, a reference to the place on a sailing vessel that holds navigational tools such as the compass, sextant, and maps. Like the navigational instruments, ChartHouse’s mission was not to tell its clients where to go, but to give them the tools to set their course. In 1991 the firm followed up on the success of Barker’s film by adding a second video, “The Power of Vision,” to the “Paradigms” series. In the film, Barker explained vision as “the result of dreams in action,” and traveled the world trying to make this concept applicable for his audience. From the Parthenon in Greece to a public school in Harlem, he showed how people had turned their dreams into real accomplishments through the power of vision.
An Inspiring Message from Seattle Fishmongers: 1997–2000
The connections and expertise that ChartHouse acquired in the making of the paradigms films prepared the firm to capitalize on an even bigger business training phenomenon. This time it was Ray Christensen’s son John who would lead the project. John Christensen had started working in ChartHouse’s shipping department as a teenager in 1985. At first he had no particular inclination to follow his father into the film industry, and instead got a degree in Park and Recreation Studies from the University of Minnesota. After college, while working with kids as a summer camp director, he saw the value of artistry and teaching. He went back to ChartHouse and worked his way up to the higher ranks of the company.
Inspiration hit during a visit to Seattle in 1997. John Christensen heard from the concierge at his hotel that the Pike Place Market was worth a visit. Strolling through the market, Christensen noticed quite a bit of commotion centered around a fish vendor. Workers were tossing fish around, customers were ducking and screaming, and cashiers were picking on regular customers who had been away too long. The whole atmosphere was charged with fun and energy. Christensen, as he related the story to Minnesota Business, approached one of the cashiers to find out what was happening. The employee said, “Did you have lunch today? Chances are your waiter or waitress took your order, brought your food without a smile or a hello, and then you paid your bill and left a tip.” The cashier paused, looked Christensen in the eye, and said emphatically, “This is our time, yours and mine. How can I help you?”
The fish vendors’ attitude impressed Christensen as the ideal of customer service. The experience in Seattle stood out even more strongly when compared to less-than-satisfying interactions back home. Christensen took his three-year-old daughter to the pediatrician, where the receptionist typed in her name without even looking at them, the nurse did her job mechanically in cold, sterile surroundings, and there was no sense of human connection during the whole visit. It seemed that the rest of the world could benefit from a little of the fishmongers’ refreshing attitude.
So Christensen put together a video with Steve Lundin, then a filmmaker, writer, public speaker and business school professor, and soon to become known as the “Big Tuna Ph.D.” at ChartHouse. Harry Paul, a professional speaker and consulting partner with motivational firm Ken Blanchard Companies, also took part in the project. Fish! Catch the Energy, Release the Potential was released in 1998. The 17-minute film profiled the Pike Place fishmongers, showing how they had succeeded in improving working morale and customer service. The video highlighted four principles that could be applied at any company: Play, Make Their Day, Be There, and Choose Your Attitude. According to the Fish! Philosophy, a lighthearted approach improves productivity and creativity, while small acts of kindness “make their day” by turning routine encounters into special memories. The film encouraged viewers to be fully present and wholehearted in their daily tasks, and, finally, pointed out that individuals could choose to concentrate on the good and let go of negative things that cannot be changed. John Christensen summed up the film’s approach in a company-produced biography: “The ChartHouse vision is an invitation to people to become fully immersed in their lives, using these four seemingly simplistic ideas. In many ways the Fish! Philosophy is really ancient wisdom for modern times, a lifestyle choice to engage in life-long learning and self-improvement. The products we offer are really learning tools, from some of the best mentors one could have—real-life experiences that ultimately speak to the human spirit.”
Statement of values: Believing in the potential of all human beings, and their right to be respected and encouraged. Creating well-crafted, authentic learning programs that reflect our love of storytelling and our pride in excellence. Continuing to put our hearts into reliable, caring and ethical customer service. Nurturing a work environment where we practice what we preach—a sense of home, continual learning, trust, listening, accountability, passion and fun. Being responsible, faithful stewards of all natural and human resources.
Fish! was fun to watch, and it became a bestselling video that spurred record growth at ChartHouse. The firm grew at a rate of 25 percent annually over the next few years, and the workforce doubled to 42 employees by 2002. Meanwhile, the video was being translated into numerous languages and a sequel film was in the works. The second film in the series, Fish! Sticks, appeared in 1999. While the same length as the original, the sequel told the Pike Place fishmongers’ story in greater depth. Shop owner Johnny explains how he used to hate his job, but by applying a few attitude-changing concepts, his business became famous, fun, and profitable.
Fish! Growth: 2000-2002
John Christensen’s success with the Fish! series built on and surpassed his father’s success with the “paradigms” videos. At midnight on December 31, 1999, control of ChartHouse was officially transferred to a new generation. In a symbolic “passing of the torch,” Ray Christensen handed his son a director’s viewfinder during a New Year’s dinner with the Seattle fishmongers. Under the younger Christensen’s leadership, the Fish! line of learning tools expanded. A book authored by Fish! collaborator Steve Lundin came out in March 2000. Titled Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results!, the book told the story of a workplace so cold and disconnected that it was known as the “Toxic Energy Dump.” After two years, the book had been translated into 11 languages and was distributed in 27 countries.
As interest grew in the Fish! philosophy, ChartHouse began hosting live learning events to give managers direct experience with the Fish! principles. These events, known as Fish! Camps, attracted leaders from companies such as Barnes & Noble, Target, and Musicland Stores. Steve Lundin acted as counselor at many of the events, which drew participants to Minnesota from as far away as California and South Africa.
A second book, Fish! Tales, was published in April 2002. Senior ChartHouse writer Philip Strand joined Steve Lundin in producing the book, which portrayed four real-life workplaces that had improved results and morale with the help of the Fish! materials. The book also included numerous shorter profiles of companies that had successfully applied the Fish! philosophy. Christensen estimated that 15,000 companies were using the series in 2002, including the majority of Fortune 100 companies. Fish! committees had even sprung up at some firms, and the Fish! philosophy was leaving its idiosyncratic track at workplaces across the nation. Employees at Liberty Diversified Industries in New Hope, Minnesota, for example, put image-distorting mirrors in their bathrooms, while managers at Sprint were inspired to perform disco dances in bunny slippers. In four years, Fish! had developed from a mere training video into a corporate subculture. ChartHouse customers included such companies as Southwest Airlines, 3M, Hewlett Packard, and Ford Motor.
But the Fish! principles had implications beyond the business realm. ChartHouse heard of the philosophy being used to save marriages and turn despondent people away from a suicidal path. Christensen subsequently began adapting the series for special audiences such as schools and hospitals, using the same storytelling style to show how various organizations had successfully applied the Fish! philosophy. “We measure our growth not by revenue numbers but by the stories of transformation that come back to us, the numbers of lives we help change,” Christensen said in a ChartHouse company profile. “ChartHouse is truly finding the deeper layers of where the Fish! Philosophy can go into the culture.” The company was also rounding out the Fish! series with a video version of Fish! Tales and a book version of Fish! Sticks. In addition, ChartHouse pursued projects outside the Fish! series, such as a film underway in the summer of 2002 on how to bring innovation alive. The company saw its products as educational tools that, rather than promoting a company-mandated policy, encouraged viewers to adopt a genuine attitude change that had consequences for all areas of their lives.
Robbins Research International, Inc.
- Ray Christensen begins making commercials and documentaries in Omaha.
- Christensen moves to Minnesota and renames his firm Filmedia Inc.
- Christensen’s safety documentary for Federated Insurance wins acclaim.
- The Business of Paradigms, made with Joel Barker, is introduced.
- A second Joel Barker film, The Power of Vision, comes out.
- John Christensen visits Seattle and is inspired by the Pike Place fishmongers.
- The first Fish! film appears.
- A Fish! book and Fish! Camps are introduced.
Brouillard, Sarah, “All the Buzz: ChartHouse Learning Created the Fish! Phenom—and Spawned a Subculture,” Minnesota Business, June 2002, pp. 24–26.
Brown, Tom, “Of Paradigms … and Visions: Joel Barker Says They Can Tell You a Lot About Business Success—and Failure,” Industry Week, March 4, 1991, p. 11.
Cruz, Sherri, “The Philosophy of Fish,” Star Tribune, October 12, 2000, p. 1D.
Ellet, Bill, “Team Spirit,” Training & Development, May 2000, p. 108.
Emerson, Dan, “Tossing Fish Hooks Training Devotees,” CityBusiness (Minneapolis), January 19, 2001, p. 19.
Lelyveld, Nita, “Pike Place Fishmongers Showing Up As Example of Fun at Work,” Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 4, 2000.
Selix, Casey, “Fish! Reels in Followers,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Tuesday, April 30, 2000, p. 1C.
—Sarah Ruth Lorenz