Southwest Airlines bought 27,000 copies, mailing one to each employee. Amway bought 15,000. Mercedes-Benz, 8,500. Kodak, 12,000. The New York Stock Exchange’s Dick Grasso ordered 12 – just for his top employees. Even Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley have bulk-ordered this 94-page big-print parable about two “little people” named Hem and Haw whose cheese (really a stand-in for money, success, and happiness) disappears, only to be tracked down by a pair of enterprising mice named Sniff and Scurry. “I’d heard this story years ago that mice won’t keep running back to the same place looking for cheese,” says Spencer Johnson. “Unfortunately, people aren’t like that.”
Once upon a time, Johnson, a South Dakota-born doctor, turned down a job at the Mayo Clinic; he was more intrigued, he says, by people who were getting sick because of their belief systems. Johnson turned that fascination into a highly lucrative, if somewhat anonymous, franchise as an author of business self-help books. His greatest success, pre-Cheese, was co-writing The One Minute Manager. But the current book seems to have perfectly captured the anxieties of traditional businesspeople as they try to cope with a rapidly mutating economy. Not that his message is always welcome: On Amazon, one reader reports that getting this book from your boss is like being handed a bottle of Scope.
Living Dangerously Putnam dispatched Cheese to the bookstores at the height of l’affaire Lewinsky; Johnson found himself shut out of Oprah, Good Morning America, and Larry King Live. “To keep my sense of humor, I had to tell myself, ‘They’re just moving my cheese.’ ” Move it did: Thanks to word of mouth that fairly roared, Cheese soon nibbled its way through every major best-seller list in the country – it’s occupied a top-ten hole on the New York Times business best-seller list for a full year. With more than 700,000 sold and on bookstore shelves, Cheese is speeding its way into its thirty-fifth printing.
Moneymaking Mantra “Most change – whether you realize it at the time or not – leads to something better,” says Johnson. “New cheese tastes a lot better than the old cheese.”
Where He’s Headed In 2000 Into celluloid. Who Moved My Cheese? is now a low-budget animated movie that stands to become the corporate-hygiene flick of the double-0 years – though Johnson refuses to think of Cheese as a training tool: “That word reminds me of hitting a puppy with a newspaper.” When Johnson and his 1981-incorporated Spencer Johnson Company aren’t busy fielding orders for Cheese golf shirts, pens, and Post-It notes from the likes of Hewlett-Packard, he’ll be arranging half-day “Who Moved My Cheese Experience” seminars with management consultant Deloitte & Touche, and will help companies string together “Smell the Cheese Often” meetings: “Executives will get together and ask themselves, ‘What is our old cheese? Is it moldy? Is it stale?’ If they’re looking very closely, it probably is – things are changing so rapidly these days.” Johnson likes to say that smart companies are looking for those who can help them change: “These are the people getting the increased salaries and better positions. And if you can sniff out change, you’re valuable. Most organizations have too many change-resistant Hems. What they need are a lot more Sniffs.”