Sales Weasel (2nd Attempt)

 

It only took five years to figure out that I had no future in an office. What those years at A.W Chesterton Co. and Marson Corp. taught me though was that sales is where the action is.

My first attempt lasted only a few months. I went to work with Norm Widenman who had just left Marson to form a manufacturer’s representative agency. In the short period of time I spent with Norm, he gave me most of the skills I’d need to make a profession of sales.

 It was here though that I made one of the more stupid mistakes of my life. For reasons better left unsaid, I left Norm without another job. Here we were with mortgage and baby -- and little residual in the bank -- and no income. I needed to get a job within a month or else. I didn't want to contemplate the ‘or else’. Another reason this was so disastrous was that I'd forgotten that Norm had given me a substantial expense advance initially and this was deducted from my final check. If we didn’t eat, we would have enough for one more mortgage payment. After discussing with Terry, I decided to drink from the public trough and apply for food stamps and medical. Knowing that it was only temporary lessened some of the embarrassment we both felt.

This was when I found out what an idiotic system the ‘Great Society’ had become. I was given twice the amount of food stamps I needed. When I tried to return what we didn't need, I was told to shut up or I'd jeopardize what I was receiving. We ended up burning the stamps we couldn't use. What a country! I think it was at this point my political philosophy went from liberal to libertarian.

Well, it was time to get to work. I submitted resumes to various local employment agencies (that's what we called them then) and combed the want ad section of the Sunday Globe. To keep myself busy, I took advantage of a local beautification project that involved free paint and supplies. I used this paint for both the front and rear porches of our home.

While applying a coat of battleship gray deck paint to the floor of the front porch, I got a phone call. It seems a Minneapolis-based manufacturer was looking for a New England and upstate New York sales representative and would be interviewing the next day. I asked for the last interview that was scheduled for 4 PM. I did this because first impressions and last impressions hold.

The interview would take place at the Howard Johnson hotel in downtown Boston. I was to ask for Mr. Ted Alm. Ted was about 45, my height but thin and gaunt in the face. He was a tough interview but evidently it went well enough for him to turn me over to Leroy Schwartz in the next room. Leroy was the sales manager and provided quite a contrast to Ted. Leroy was affable and jovial, about Ted’s height but heavy set and I thought the interview with him went a heck of a lot better than with Ted. I liked the way they presented the company but got mixed signals whether they wanted me. I went back home and next day was again painting the porch when at about 11:00 AM, I got another phone call from Leroy asking me to come back to Boston. Well, looked like I made the first cut.

I figured they had cut it down to 3 or 4 and this would be the crucial one. When I arrived, Leroy and Ted were there in Ted’s room. They made me an offer that included a new car and I was put on the payroll immediately. I was stunned. Later, I learned that it was Ted who wanted me while Leroy favored someone else who had extensive industrial sales experience. Ted was able to convince Leroy that I’d be the better choice.

Go figure!

So, here I was aboard a Northeast Orient flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul for two weeks of training. I was met at the airport by a 6’ 3", 28 year old, built like a wrestler with drooping mustaches.

"Hi, I’m DJ O'Connell and I cover Northern Minnesota and a couple other states thrown in for chuckles for Flo-Pac. My car’s out front."

DJ had a Buick Regal convertible and the top was down on this unusually beautiful late autumn day. DJ looked like a hood but he had a mellifluous baritone voice and was soft spoken to a fault. I must have looked puzzled.

"My dad’s a funeral director and I lived in the funeral home. Bereavement is second nature to me so that every time I meet someone new or talk to a customer, I assume my funeral director’s son persona."

The way he spoke I turned my head from left to right and would not have been surprised to see an open casket somewhere in the airport parking lot. I threw my bags in the trunk and off we went for the 20-minute ride to Flour City Brush Co. or Flo-Pac. Five minutes into the ride, DJ reaches under the driver’s seat and pulls out a one-foot long Bong.

"What...." I stammered.

"Do you smoke weed?"

"Sure, but not just now. Don’t forget, I’m here for training."

"No problem, I was just trying to get you off on the right foot. Mind if I fire up this baby?"

"Be my guest."

By the time we reached Flo-Pac, DJ was Cheech or Chong, take your pick, and the speed of the car went from 70 mph to 5 by the time we reached our destination.

"Don’t you worry that somebody will find out you’re stoned?" I sounded more paranoid than he.

"Tom, my friend, I’m stoned 16 out of 24 hours. The other eight I sleep. I interviewed two years ago and I was stoned."

I had to admit the only difference I could detect in his physical demeanor was dilated pupils.

"My speech is slow and hesitant to begin with. The rest of my quirks they attribute to my funereal background."

I spent a couple days during training making a few, and I mean just a few sales calls with DJ. Most of the time, we spent driving in his open convertible past farm upon farm, smoking our brains out, listening to rock music. Sometimes DJ would switch to a country station. If we were mildly stoned, we’d laugh at it; if we were ripped, we’d think the lyrics profound.

"Wow, he caught his wife with his best friend, shot them both, and was left with the seven kids. That's pretty heavy shit, man."

"Sure spares the kids an ugly divorce." I contributed.

That was the last I saw of DJ. He left Flo-Pac a few months later and returned to the family business where he's probably still saying with eyes that are mostly pupils, "Good evening. My name is DJ O'Connell. Are you here for Mrs. Lundquist or Mr. Peterson? Mr. Peterson, yes, third room to the left -- -- -- man."

Speaking of Peterson, during my first day at Flo-Pac, I was introduced to Curt Peterson. Curt was one of Flo-Pac's most successful salesmen. He had that Midwest Norwegian look, fair skin, light brown hair, glasses, and spoke with a Minnesota twang. His territory was local and he’d just been promoted to field sales manager.

Curt was to become my immediate boss and good friend. Curt was a devout Lutheran and family man. He and Lu, his wife, had two boys who were currently enrolled at St. Olaf’s, a prestigious music school. They lived in prosperous Edina. Curt represented everything that was good in American society. He was first a family man and a hard worker. Although I didn’t share all of his values, Curt provided a strong contrast with the free spirited DJ.

Bob Blakely, another Flo-Pac salesman, had nicknamed Curt ‘Sleepy’ because he was soft spoken and tended to fall asleep while driving around the territory with you. As a boss, Curt’s attitude was work hard and smart and I’ll stay out of your way. I wish the federal government shared that philosophy. Actually, even if I were lazy and worked stupid, I’d want the government out of my way. Anyhow, Curt took me home to meet his family and invited me to attend a Christmas concert at St. Olof’s, which was broadcast every season over PBS. It was the highlight of my trip to Minnesota.

Here are some of the more memorable people from Flo-Pac:

Leroy Schwartz, sales manager, and even though a Jehovah’s Witness, had great respect for other people’s religions. He visited me in the field once and had supper with my family. Julianne, 4 years old, beat him at Connect Four – legally. Note - she also beat Curt when he visited. I’m not sure if they were pissed off or impressed.

Bob Blakely was in his early twenties and his territory included Chicago. Bob yearned to become independently wealthy. He and Curt Peterson eventually formed their own janitorial supply house and, last I heard, they were doing well.

Dick Poferl was the company veteran who had eight kids including a Down Syndrome girl named Suzie. Dick was a rabid Vikings fan and worked their ticket counter. At a national sales meeting in San Diego, Dick drank a whole case of beer in an evening. He reportedly peed for 8 solid minutes the following morning and passed enough gas to fill a 300 cubic foot cylinder.

The first national sales meeting I attended took place in San Francisco. We did the usual stuff like Fisherman’s Wharf, Eggs Benedict, and the trolley as well as the non-traditional stuff like the Hookers Ball. The Hookers Ball was a gathering of prostitutes of all persuasions; it was a showcase for the homosexual and lesbian community. Don’t forget, this was in the mid seventies when coming out of the closet was just beginning to gain acceptance. The shock value at that time was still high. I have two memories of the Hookers Ball. One was my inability to distinguish between the sexes and the other was seeing a woman dressed only in Saran Wrap.

The following year’s sales meeting was in Georgia beginning with Atlanta and a tour of one of our manufacturing facility there. The meeting itself took place at a resort in Southern Georgia near the Alabama border. This was definitely not Yankee country. Actually, it was surreal. The kudzu had taken over, wrapping itself around trees, strangling telephone poles, and threatening to engulf homes. We were told that at the rate it spread, kudzu would eventually become the dominant life form in North America. Well, Montezuma had had his revenge now it was time for Japan.

The resort we stayed in was built from the ashes of a plantation manor, pre Civil War. It was like stepping into Tara. The wait staff and help were all black and in traditional dress. They were subservient to the point of being obsequious. When you consider how bigoted most of my family were, I’m surprised I found the whole situation uncomfortable, disconcerting, and couldn’t leave fast enough.

Perhaps the most memorable meeting took place in San Diego near the site of our third manufacturing plant. The weather was idyllic and the pace slower and less formal. I could understand why many easterners moved there and also why they moved back. Paradise is always exciting until the sameness of climate makes you yearn for the four seasons back home. Everyone I knew who moved out there, came back eventually.

My favorite moment there was watching the sunset on the ocean.

Well, with two young children in the family, it was time to make decisions. The company was changing directions down roads that held no interest for me. Besides New England, and upstate New York, they now wanted me to cover all of Pennsylvania.

The decision for me was a no-brainer.

It was time to say hello to Banner Systems where I spent ten years, and hello to coaching, taxiing, and, running races.